Friday, September 15, 2023

Artificial intelligence, as Summer Wraps Up

What has been written about AI since late July?

First, we had “4 careers where workers will have to change jobs by 2030 due to AI and shifts in how we shop, according to a McKinsey study” (Jacob Zinkula, Business Insider, July 28th).  The areas are “office support, customer service and sales, food services, and production work (e.g. manufacturing).”  The emphasis here is on “lower-wage jobs,” with “clerks, retail salespersons, administrative assistants, and cashiers” each expected to lose more than 600,000 positions, net, in the next seven years.

Kevin Roose spotlighted one apparent area of early adoption in “Aided by A.I. Language Models, Google’s Robots Are Getting Smart,” in The New York Times on the same date.  He started by describing an automaton responding to “pick up the extinct animal” by doing so with a dinosaur model instead of a lion or a whale, a seeming merger between AI and robotics, and meaning that much more along that line would also be possible.  Additionally, we have, per a Google scientist, such devices discovering “how to speak robot” by guessing “how a robot’s arm should move to pick up a ball or throw an empty soda can into the recycling bin.”  When machines do these things consistently correctly, which they do not yet, they will be especially valuable.  The next day the Times published Ben Ryder Howe’s “The Robots We Were Afraid of Are Already Here,” which was disappointing, as there seemed little new here among these automata’s industrial capabilities.

A subject we would all like to succeed at is “How to invest in AI” (Kim Clark, Kiplinger, July 29th).  Since February, people expecting to be hugely important have long since pushed up some stocks and have done much more trading as developments and even plans have materialized, so we’re way up from any ground floor.  It’s reminiscent of buying automotive stocks in the 1920s, when knowing the industry had great potential did not mean we knew who the winners and losers would be.  Given that, though, there are industry leaders looking less risky than others – ones Clark named were chip designers Nvidia, Broadcom, and Taiwan Semiconductor, along with chip software maker Synopsis.  All are risky, but huge-potential investments always are. 

Controversy stepped into an area in progress for years, as “This tech is the ‘sad reality’ of restaurant industry’s future, business owner says robot works 12 hours a day” (Hannah Ray Lambert, Fox News, August 13th).  When an Estacada, Oregon eatery, in response to not finding enough servers, deployed a Plato automaton to do their work, the owner got “customer pushback.”  Strange, but may prove to be common. 

Expecting the technology to be stronger, not weaker, than people thought months ago, was Arantza Pena Popo, in “AI is going to eliminate way more jobs than anyone realizes” (Insider, August 14th). The author said that “permanent mass employment can safely be ruled out,” but hundreds of millions of people may not be able to work their current jobs in 35 years or less.  Beyond that, it’s just a great mass of unknowns.

A question on the minds of most in this field is “The U.S. Regulates Cars, Radio and TV.  When Will It Regulate A.I.?” (Ian Prasad Philbrick, The New York Times, August 24th).  Per Philbrick’s determination, it “probably won’t happen soon,” as while television was regulated within five years of “invention or patenting,” radio took 20, telephones took 30, and railroads and automobiles were not delimited until 60 and 70 years later.  While “regulation often happens gradually as a technology improves or an industry grows,” “sometimes it happens only after tragedy.”  Accordingly, it may, or may not, take a while.

Related to my post suggesting similar things four days earlier was “The A.I. Revolution Is Coming, But Not as Fast as Some People Think,” by Steve Lohr in the New York Times on August 29th.  Reservations and reasons for going slower named here are “risks of leaking confidential data, questions about how the data is used and about the accuracy of the A.I.-generated answers,” and it cited another McKinsey study suggesting “mainstream adoption” would take somewhere between 8 and 27 years.  By then, other problems, such as copyright infringement, may still be significant.  So don’t expect anything big for a while – but let’s still stay tuned.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Liking Remote Work Won’t Change Its Downward Trend

Although I think the working-from-home cons have more merit than the pros, there have been a significant number of articles favoring the latter.  What do they have to say?

Hiding his opinion even less than I do mine was Gleb Tsipursky, in the May 8th Fortune piece “Why your boss is giving in to the siren call of the return to the office – and giving up on the flexible work gold mine.”  The author called the idea that “many organizations are struggling to foster strong communication, collaboration, and team bonding” when people worked remotely “startling,” and said that companies, as they became “faced with challenges,” “rather than learning to adapt,” were “tempted to go back to the cozy confines of the office-centric model.”  The piece offered no substantive suggestions for improvement, only that management should overcome “status quo bias” and “functional fixedness,” “adopt methods of building culture, collaboration, team bonding, and communication that are a good fit for a hybrid environment,” and “stop running” from “the future of work,” which is “here.” 

Paul Krugman, the columnist and Nobel-winning economist, told us, in “Working From Home and Realizing What Matters,” in The New York Times on May 22nd, that the value of remote labor should be raised in our estimations, because of reduced commuting time, which is undercounted or not counted in other measures.  True – if work hours are no longer.  The same author had “Remote work hasn’t doomed cities.  It may even help them” in the same publication on June 2nd.  His thought here was that “people who don’t have to commute to the office every day spend more time frequenting local shops, restaurants and so on, improving the quality of their neighborhoods,” although “remote work will surely shift metropolitan areas’ centers of gravity away from their central business districts.”

Similar in tone to the first article, Breck Dumas wrote in Fox Business about “Why some bosses hate remote work and what can be done about common gripes” (July 17th).  The five major reasons the author saw were “inadequate communication and collaboration” (which called for managers to “reach out to their remote workers and stay connected with them in other ways, like through phone or video calls”), “task allocation and clarity” (by setting SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound – parameters), “time management” (by “providing workers with training on time management techniques and encouraging prioritization and delegation”), “workload and resource allocation” (“regularly assess workloads, redistribute tasks as needed and ensure individuals have access to the necessary tools, training and support”), and “recognition and reward” (find ways of celebrating achievements with “elements of fun,” even on Zoom calls). 

Finally, some advice on “Making a successful data-driven transition to hybrid work” (Louis Blatt, Benefit News, August 1st), namely to “find out what your employees need” and “give workers some space,” along with habitually “explicitly dividing your project management into two categories:  focused/individual work and collaborative work.” 

How did you like the above?  If you did, you’re probably in favor of plenty of remote work.  If you didn’t, you saw blitheness, vagueness, superficiality, and confusing training with individual performance.  The pendulum between in-person and remote labor is still moving – it is now pulling strongly toward the office.  If it were not, there would be few calls for workers to come back, and little controversy about it.  Dressing as vegetables on celebratory video calls won’t change that.  Assuming that everyone will be focused and conscientious when faced with the temptation of being unsupervised won’t alter its back-and-forth nature.  That’s not only the present, but the future of work.  That’s what we have known since the first George Bush was president – and what, indefinitely, we will continue to know.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Unemployment Up, Job Gains Robust, More People on Sidelines, Latent Demand from AJSN 145,000 Higher

In this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, we were supposed to be keying on the number of net new nonfarm payroll positions, often just referred to as “jobs.”  It was a fine one, 187,000, an even ten percent over a published 170,000 estimate.  As excellent as that is and keeps being, with total population growth lower, some other outcomes were more surprising and less favorable.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment jumped 0.3% to 3.8%, with the unadjusted variety up 0.1% to 3.9%.  That reflected lower than seasonally expected August hiring, or, more likely, additional firing or layoffs, an effect from bankruptcies (Yellow Corporation) and strikes (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).  The number of officially unemployed gained 600,000 to 6.4 million, and those with jobs fell 55,000 to 161,427,000.  The count of those claiming no interest in work also increased 600,000, reaching 93,682,000.  The number of long-term unemployed, in that state for 12 months or longer, also rose, 100,000 to 1.3 million, while those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding shorter-hours jobs while seeking full-time ones, tacked on another 200,000 to 4.2 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be either working or officially jobless, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, gained 0.2% and broke even respectively, ending at 62.8% and 60.4%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings gained 8 cents per hour, a tiny bit less than inflation, to $33.82. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly and easily filled if getting one were perceived as no more difficult than another household errand, rose modestly to the following:

The AJSN added 226,000 from higher unemployment, but lost overall in categories of marginal attachment, mostly those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN from people officially jobless is still a clear minority, 35.5%, up 1.1%.  There was remarkably little year-over-year AJSN difference, a 116,000 increase, following the same pattern as the change from July 2023, as higher unemployment was partially offset by a smaller number of those not putting forth searching efforts for 12 months or longer. 

What happened here?  It seemed that there was a real mixture of people thrown out of work, probably in the case of truckers and writers temporarily, those deciding not to make themselves available for a while, and solid growth otherwise.  The weakest outcomes, such as total unemployment, wages, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, gave back only parts of recent improvements.  The bottom line is indeed that 187,000.  Few have acknowledged how favorable it is for our labor force to be continuously growing, but there is no reason for that to be happening, month after month after month.  We would have a strong economy even if we averaged 100,000 fewer.  If negative trends continue this month we may not be able to say this, but, once more, the turtle took another step forward.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Artificial Intelligence, With Problems Galore, is Getting Boxed In

Five weeks ago, I published a post about an artificial intelligence backlash, or reactions against it from various directions.  Since then, when we factor out the news stories speculating about AI’s effects on employment, telling us about new or not-so-new robotics advances, and subjective investment advice, there hasn’t been much good, and it adds up to something worse.

First, as shown in “CheatGPT,” by Aki Ito in Business Insider on August 1st, we have workers using AI against company rules, taking advantage of lagging or overly cautious policies as well as thoughtfully reasoned ones.  That is really an issue between employer and employee but could turn out to cause the former real problems when accuracy is not what it seems.  Such isn’t rare, as “When Hackers Descended to Test A.I., They Found Flaws Aplenty” (Sarah Kessler and Tiffany Hsu, The New York Times, August 16th).  At the Defcon hacker’s conference this month, participants “tried to break through the safeguards of various A.I. programs in an effort to identify their vulnerabilities.”  They were able to get the software to make racist and discriminatory statements, select sample job applicants by Indian caste, and write factually about nonexistent people, places, and constitutional amendments.  Efforts like these, in this case strictly benevolent, are invaluable, with experts revealing previously unknown flaws – the bad news is that those shortcomings are real.

Is, or will it, be true that “AI is ruining the internet” (Arantza Pena Popo, Business Insider, August 8th)?  The programs are now able to defeat many of the human-verifying “captchas,” causing sites to make theirs so difficult many actual people cannot get through.  A Europol study estimated that within “a few years,” ninety percent “of internet content” will be produced by AI systems and will contain significant errors.  That could result in online resources seeming “engineered for the machines and by the machines,” its value could greatly decrease, and it may in turn poison future AI improvements.

The most telling of these articles, though, is “Digging for digits” (The Economist, August 19th).  It told us about how the world is running out of accessible, non-copyrighted data, for which companies are competing and paying increasing amounts to use.  Some of that will be inputs into ChatGPT 5, which may be released before the end of the year.

But how about ChatGPT 6?  If we see that one someday, it may not be fundamentally better.  Why?

Although conceptually it could be boundless, artificial intelligence is being stopped on several different fronts.  First is copyright problems, with unauthorized incorporation of legally protected work well integrated into ChatGPT 4, and certain to result in further lawsuits and massive settlements, with a chance that its entire knowledge set could need to be erased and rebuilt.  Second is chip shortages – developing large language models at contemporary strengths consumes more silicon than it can get.  Third is calls for more regulation, which, with governmental authorities perennially behind the curve with technical issues, could impede or even halt development, production, or both.  Fourth is an upcoming data shortage as above. 

The fifth limit, and perhaps the ultimate, is money.  ChatGPT 5 will cost in the billions of dollars.  Since growth is exponential, there is a real chance that ChatGPT 6 or its equivalent would run in the hundreds of billions.  Even in as future-oriented a field as information technology, companies, venture capitalists, and other lenders and resource providers want results quickly and will see the other four problems. 

Six years ago, driverless cars seemed poised to take over world roads within a generation.  Now, although they have done well in useful if controversial niches such as taxicab travel, and their technology is turning up more and more in human-driven autos, their overall development has apparently stalled, with little press about them becoming the norm.  A serious around-1970 prediction said that within two decades artificial hearts would be, after cars, the second largest American industry – it is now possible to get one, but its implementations are measured in dozens.

The same may happen with artificial intelligence.  It may find its role in business writing, and as a lower-end substitute for human effort.  By 2040, people may laugh about the idea that this business tool could take over the world, and compare its dangers to those of copiers.  Or not.  Will artificial intelligence stay way short of its potential?  I don’t know, but we need to seriously consider that possibility.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Uber, Lyft, and Gigs in General – How Are They Doing?

A lot has piled up here about working without conventional jobs.  Let’s see what it is.

Oldest is “Biden Proposal Could Lead to Employee Status for Gig Workers” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, October 11th).  That wouldn’t be wide open, but rather “lowers the bar for that employee classification,” by incorporating “how much control workers have over how they do their jobs and how much opportunity they have to increase their earnings by doing things like offering new services.”  The piece, though, is more about how current laws are often disobeyed by companies preferring workers to be contractors.  Consistently correct categorization would do more for those with gigs than changing it.  As for Megan Henney’s October 12th Fox Business response that “Biden’s proposed gig worker rule could deal a major blow to small businesses,” the end of slavery did that as well.

Also on the 11th, The New York Times told us to “Meet the App That Helps Gig Workers Know How Much They Really Make” (Erin Griffith).  It’s Para.  Not a cost-accounting product, but one that gets into company databases and reveals how much workers will be paid, often including tip amounts, so they can accept or refuse giving rides or delivering restaurant orders.  The product delighted neither Uber nor DoorDash, who both sent Para “cease-and-desist letters.”  Para provides information important enough for one driver to report that “a no-tip order from Red Lobster could mean less than $3 for 30 minutes of work during a peak time.”  Overall, if companies freely provided this information, there would be no need for anyone to get it any other way.

From the front ridesharing lines came “What Shocked Me Most When I Became a Lyft Driver for a Week” (Timothy B. Lee,, December 22nd).  The reporter found great variation in his portion of what Lyft charged, from “less than 30 percent” to “more than 80 percent,” and over the week collected 52%.  Interesting, since the rate Yellow Cab of Milwaukee paid when I worked there in 1976, for those preferring a percentage of fares, was 55% – with the company providing the taxi.  As Lee put it, “it seems that the smartphone revolution didn’t make taxi dispatching cheaper and more efficient.  It made it way more expensive.”  So, perhaps, could someone create a cheaper rideshare model?

Three articles on the other large de facto cab company appeared in the New York Times over five weeks.  “Uber Drivers Say They Are Struggling: ‘This Is Not Sustainable’” (Winnie Hu and Ana Ley, January 12th).  That’s no wonder, if they need to pay for their cars out of 52% of fair market fares.  Yet they have learned something – one interviewee said he was leaving to drive a truck.  Also, little shock that “Uber Reports Record Revenue as It Defies the Economic Downturn” (Kellen Browning, February 8th).  It was $8.6 billion from October to December 2022, of which $595 million was profit.  Yet “Financial Woes Thrust Lyft, Long in Uber’s Shadow, Into the Spotlight” (also Kellen Browning, February 15th).  On their “record revenue of $1.2 billion in its most recent quarter,” they lost $588 million.  Strange.

Moving almost six months later, we heard that “Minneapolis Uber, Lyft drivers want minimum wage, companies say it could be worse for riders” (Mills Hayes, Fox Business, August 2nd).  I could not have imagined that as a cabdriver, when, over full-length days, I netted over double the $1.80 per hour I got elsewhere the next year.  And yes, Uber and Lyft opposed that, perhaps because it illuminated how little many earn after expenses.

Last, could it be that emphasis on gigs is causing “The death of hobbies” (Eve Upton-Clark, Insider, July 31st)?  Not really.  Since my early teens, I have consistently sought out ways of earning money from what I enjoy, and have done that, with different things, most of my life.  That does lead to wanting a true avocation when others become vocations.  Yes, as the author says, going for profit can cut down other activities in that area, as, for example, reselling collectibles cuts compatibility with keeping them for yourself, but people can always adjust what they do.  A great deal of the fun remains – and the advantage of earning money instead of spending it can, over decades, be remarkable.  So, find the right choices for you and go right ahead – you’ll probably like it.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Hiring Policy – What’s New and What Could Be Next?

Something not getting much attention, except recently with artificial intelligence making inroads and causing controversy, is how employers hire.  These articles are spread over ten months, but it takes a while to get news on this subject, about which companies can be secretive.

Finally, “Globalization has come for US tech jobs” (Aki Ito, Business Insider, September 28th).  What took it so long?  I predicted in 2012’s Work’s New Age that that would happen quickly, given that most such positions need little or no in-person presence, and Russia and India, to name only two, had many skilled candidates not expecting American pay scales.  But now we can read about “the payroll startup Deel,” which “wants to prioritize hiring the best candidates regardless of location,” and is looking on at least three continents.  Per this piece, companies learned how people can collaborate remotely from the pandemic, so some are taking that further.  Dare I say that we should expect much more?

After that is “5 jobs U.S. employers plan to outsource,” by Lee Hafner on November 17th in Benefit News.  Really fields instead of positions, they are human resources, information technology, marketing, sales, and software development and testing.  That’s two in computers, a departure from IT’s frequent appearances, as late as last year, in listings of best careers.  The others are somewhat surprising, as some sales, HR, and marketing research must indeed be done in person.  It is possible that this list, after the remote-work backlash, would be different now.

Something worth considering is Brock Dumas’s December 23rd Fox Business “Trouble filling a job?  Look at hiring someone with a criminal record, HR pro says.”  This article and the next address re-examining hiring restrictions, appropriate when potential employees are scarce.  The author cited studies showing that employees with such history were not only as reliable and effective as those without it, but often more, as they have “fewer options.”  As well, “former offenders” can be “less expensive to hire.”  People can be given positions less pertinent to their previous crimes, and their status may not be relevant at all.

Another approach, taking place in other areas, is to evaluate credential requirements, many of which were installed when hirers wanted to thin jobseekers’ ranks.  The largest is the subject of “See Workers as Workers, Not as a College Credential” (Editorial Board, The New York Times, January 28th).  Points made here were to follow the example of Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro, who, ten days before this piece’s press time, “eliminated the requirement of a four-year college degree for the vast majority of jobs in the state government.”  It is easy to use graduation as a proxy for various general skills and attributes, but interviews, among other tools, can serve that function also.  We may not go back to the age, during some of our lifetimes, when people wanting business careers usually did not attend college, but we can loosen general education’s grip.

We may forget that, just before the big artificial intelligence news, 100,000 people in information technology lost their jobs.  Per Tyler Le in Business Insider on February 14th, “Big Tech’s massive layoffs will come back to haunt it.”  The author maintained that the bloodletting has badly hurt the field’s reputation, especially for a generation valuing stability, so IT may no longer be “the destination of choice for the smartest kids at the best schools.”  But what goes down often goes back up.

I finish with a newer hiring-related issue, as “Affirmative Action Ruling May Upend Hiring Policies, Too” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, June 30th).  “The Supreme Court’s rejection of race-conscious admissions in higher education” has been rippling outward, with potential for new attitudes even in legally unrelated areas.  With the lawfulness of hiring policies favoring certain groups already in doubt, we can look for many changes as new practices take hold.  As with the other issues raised here, that may take a while.