Friday, October 28, 2022

Home or Office? – III

The series from last month continues, with plenty more reports and views from the past month.

Oldest is Trey Williams’s September 28th Yahoo Finance “Employees worry they’ll be fired first in layoffs if they’re working remotely.”  Yes, being out of sight and out of mind is a real situation, and it’s easier than some might think to be almost forgotten, or put unconsciously in a lower category.  This piece also named a recent GoodHire study finding that of those over 25, the share of those saying they would most like to work from home fell, since last year, from 68% to 44%.  Only one data point, but could it be the beginning of a trend?

Next, it’s “Remote work could be the reason you don’t have a job in 10 years,” by Jane Thier in the September 29th Fortune.  I haven’t really understood why information technology jobs, for example, haven’t already largely gone to lower-paid foreigners, as most can be done from anywhere, and predicted that in my 10-year-old book Work’s New Age.  This article quoted an MIT professor apparently newly taking the same view, saying that increased work from home will prompt companies to consider “outsourcing those kinds of jobs that didn’t used to be outsourced.”  There must be more than that, though, as certainly people knew of that possibility decades ago and have only rarely acted on it, meaning they had other reasons for not following through. 

We visit the sunny side of the non-office street with Deanna Cuadra’s October 17th Benefit News “5 reasons why hybrid work is a win-win for employers and employees.”  That variety, featuring mandatory office appearances but less than five days per week, could indeed become the great compromise, but that would come from business decisions using current information more than from new insights.  We already know these five factors, which invoke commuting costs, home quietness advantages, possible use of coworking spaces, work-life balance, and the aforementioned career bias, but there are others such as facilitated quiet quitting making the opposite case.

Suspect productivity, something I encountered in the 1990s, is the subject of “Microsoft’s remote-work-friendly CEO puts his finger on the big problem with working from home,” in Fortune on October 17th and also by Jane Thier.  Here’s a 20,000-person, 11-country survey claiming that while 87% “say they’re more productive when they work remotely or in a hybrid setup,” but also that “85% of employers say it’s difficult to have confidence in their workers’ productivity levels when they’re not in-person.”  I am glad to see someone acknowledging in print this elephant in the room – the businesses which deal most effectively with it will have the best working-from-home results.

And now, “Remote employees are working less, sleeping and playing more, Fed study finds” (Chris Matthews, MarketWatch, October 18th).  This “new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York” found that “younger Americans using the saved commuting time to engage in leisure activities like eating out, exercising or attending social events,” and those over 30 “spent more time on childcare, home maintenance and meal preparation.”  This does not mean actual work hours differ, but the lines around it at home are often thin or blurred entirely.

One leader in an industry claiming happiness with working outside offices spoke up in “United Airlines CEO says hybrid work has caused ‘permanent structural change’ in leisure travel demand” (Aislinn Murphy, Fox Business, October 19th).  The executive, Scott Kirby, called it “one of three industry tailwinds,” as with hybrid work “every weekend could be a holiday weekend,” and such arrangements “untether (workers) from the office and give them the newfound flexibility to travel far more often than normal.”  Does this mean people agreeing to appear two or three days in person might take non-business trips on the others?  Do their companies actually allow that, or is this tacit recognition that time spent at home may not include full amounts of work?  Nobody I know of is talking.

Perhaps, though, that party could end, as considered in Paul Davidson’s October 20th USA Today “A forced return to office?  As job market cools, companies may regain upper hand with workers.”  I have thought that remote hours should be treated as a perk, a privilege for certain employees that could be offset elsewhere, and, if the advantage in the job market shifts back to employers, they may pull it back. 

If you can set your home office anywhere, what location would you choose?  Michael Kolomatsky, in the October 20th New York Times, took a quantitative stab at that in “The Best Cities for Remote Work.”  The author’s components were “workspace” for suitable residences, “amenities” for “larger yards and convenient food delivery,” “connectivity” for Internet quality, “affordability,” and “earning potential.”  Topping the list of “large cities” was Plano, Texas (a Dallas suburb), followed by Frisco in the same state, Tampa, Atlanta, Seattle, Durham, Austin, Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Charlotte.  The ten worst were all in California, mostly southern.

Finally, we have “Remote Work Is Here to Stay.  Lean In, Employers.”  This opinion piece, by Jessica Grose in the October 22nd New York Times, took the view that its advantages are too strong for it to go away.  It read like one side of a debate.

So, the issue of home or office is still evolving.  As the Temptations put it over half a century ago, round and around and around we go, where the world's headed, nobody knows.  By decade’s end, we may still not, and even if we do, it will eventually change.  That is how business usually functions, and this issue will not be an exception. 


Friday, October 21, 2022

Artificial Intelligence is Pushing Against Its Boundaries

Over the past several months, articles chronicling the state of AI had something in common.  What is it?

The first, by Nico Grant and Cade Metz in the June 12th New York Times, “Google Sidelines Engineer Who claims Its A.I. is Sentient,” described a sad situation where a worker’s views, though milder than those of many in the field of consciousness, got him placed on leave and, after the article was published, fired.  Some eminent observers in that field think that consciousness, about which we know very little, may come from computations, making it inherent even to $5 pocket calculators.  Blake Lemoine, the engineer, could be right, and none of us know that he isn’t.

Yes, now as always “We Need to Talk About How Good A.I. Is Getting” (Kevin Roose, The New York Times, August 24th).  The author ran down recent artificial intelligence achievements, from generation of art of sorts based on requests giving its subject, to one able to “predict the three-dimensional structures of proteins from their one-dimensional amino acid sequences,” and in the process solving “what’s known as the “protein-folding problem,” which had vexed molecular biologists for decades,” and recently making “predictions for nearly all of the 200 million proteins known to exist – producing a treasure trove of data that will help medical researchers develop new drugs and vaccines for years to come.”  Roose claimed that “the conversation in Silicon Valley is starting to shift,” as experts “now believe that major changes are right around the corner, for better or worse.”  He said “regulators and politicians need to get up to speed,” AI companies should communicate better about what work they are doing, and “news media” must improve at explaining it – all constructive ideas.

The sentience would be helpful to fulfill “One Man’s Dream of Fusing A.I. With Common Sense,” by Steve Lohr in the August 28th Times.  His startup, Elemental Cognition, is working to develop artificial reasoning along with the pattern recognition AI systems have excelled at.  This company trains them through “machine learning algorithms” to change human-language document contents into “a form a computer can interpret.”  A strong potential growth area, with success promising but uncertain.

I have been predicting that foreign workers would greatly reduce both jobs and pay for American computer programmers, but will automation instead be their demise?  As shown in “Coding Made AI – Now, How Will AI Unmake Coding?” (Craig S. Smith, IEEE Spectrum, September 19th), it seems quite possible.  The author held that while programming and software development “appears poised to remain a very human endeavor for the foreseeable future,” at the same time “coding as we know it may indeed be doomed.”  It’s easy to imagine, within a decade or two, giving human-language written instructions to an AI system and asking for it to create a program, letting the facility use its own chosen methods, not necessarily computer languages as we know them, to do that, and consistently getting excellent results.  As AI develops, “hand-coding software programs will increasingly be like hand-knitting sweaters.”  If that happens, it would be impossible not to expect the number of positions to vastly decline.

On the applied section of artificial intelligence known as robotics, we have reached a historic point, as a certain “Robot Fast Food Cook Costs Less Than Half a Human Worker” (John Koestler, Yahoo Finance, September 28th).  Now available to rent for about $3,000 per month, The Wingman might be the first restaurant robot fundamentally cheaper than employees.  If it succeeds under sustained production pressure, it could be used by tens of thousands of eateries nationwide, replacing workers in its wake – and every effort to mandate or just implement higher wages will only speed the transition.

This concern is described further in “Nouriel Roubini:  Why AI poses a threat to millions of workers” (Daniel Howley, Yahoo Finance, October 18th).  The interviewed author reminded us that people in fields from not only the obvious algorithmic ones but, as above, in the arts, will not only be thrown out of work but will have shaky prospects elsewhere.  Nothing’s new here but the scope, and indeed, if I need to “create a script or a movie, or make a poem, or write… or paint, or even (write) a piece of music” that does not need verve, I may soon not need human creators at all.  That driverless cars have stalled does not mean that all automated interfaces will do the same.

So what ties these six pieces together?  All are about artificial intelligence’s forward progress.  They combine for a huge, underreported news story.  AI is moving ahead in real life – we need to prepare.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Driverless Technology as of Fall 2022: Bleak, but Redirected

It’s been five years since the world was expecting an end, or nearly so, to people driving “meatmobiles,” a briefly-used name for human-controlled vehicles.  Since then, for various reasons from legislative balking to overreactions about driverless deaths, it has not seemed that way at all.  However, there are still useful pieces being written.  What has come out over the past four months?

The first was “Self-Driving and Driver-Assist Technology Linked to hundreds of Crashes, U.S. Data Shows,” by Neil E. Boudette and Cate Metz in the June 15th New York Times.  This one dealt mostly with the widespread spinoff from fully autonomous cars, “advanced driver-assistance technology” in conventional ones.  Per the authors, “over the course of 10 months” there were 392 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “cataloged” accidents, with six people dead and five “seriously injured.”  Almost 70% of them involved Teslas and three-fourths of the rest were with Hondas.  A good point from a former Department of Transportation officer was that we don’t have a “baseline” for this information, so don’t really know if it’s high due to developing technology, excessive in general, or a reasonable tradeoff. 

Is it meaningful to say that “Driverless cars shouldn’t be a race” (Shira Ovide, The New York Times, August 11th)?  Apparently, companies and their observers are using that as a metaphor, for this wide-open and once highly promising area which requires standardization and benefits massively from cooperative seller attitudes and pooled efforts.  It’s especially damaging when undue fear of autonomous vehicles is a problem anyway, and the image of a road race without drivers is jarring.  So let’s go with “building the future,” or some such, instead.

There have been a few driverless mini-rollouts, and one was “Lyft Unveils Self-Driving Car Service in Las Vegas (With Caveats)”, by Cade Metz, once again in the Times.  It’s in a limited sort of structured area, that city’s Strip, which in its most developed parts has a relatively small set of turnoffs, has a minimal number of pedestrians on the road itself, and for various reasons is not as chaotic as it once was.  But the “caveat” that “reporters are not allowed to use these services without a driver behind the wheel” says something about Lyft’s confidence, and it isn’t good.  We’ll see how long this one lasts.

“As Driverless Cars Falter, Are ‘Driver Assistance’ Systems in Closer Reach” (Lawrence Ulrich, The New York Times, September 16th)?  We already have them, but here’s some mention of where this technology might be headed, that instead of moving toward being “entirely driverless,” it might become “more like a no-nonsense chaperone,” including monitoring drivers’ eyes and alerting them if they “look away for more than a few seconds.”  That may be the right way to go now, and perhaps later in this decade, when enough have unlearned the idea that partially autonomous systems can allow them to stop driving, emphasis can be returned to work-saving functionality.

One of the largest players in driverless technology late last decade is still around, but, per the content if not the title of “Chipmaker Nvidia launches new system for autonomous driving” (Reuters, as published in Fox Business, September 20th), its debuting DRIVE Thor platform is designed to “centralize autonomous and assisted driving,” following a trend in deemphasizing fully driverless vehicles.  The product is supposed to “replace numerous chips and cables in the car and bring down the overall system cost.”  Expect other companies to position their merchandise similarly.

Back we go to the New York Times, where Cade Metz again, of all people, wasn’t happy to be “Stuck on the Streets of San Francisco in a Driverless Car” (September 28th).  His go in a GM Cruise vehicle seemed to provide a combination of driving “gingerly” and “cautiously” and “skidding to a stop in the middle of a crosswalk,” precipitating a pedestrian giving the empty driver’s seat a familiar one-finger gesture.  It didn’t end well, as “the car detected a possible accident and pulled over,” after which, though it was “a false alarm,” “the car wouldn’t budge” and his “ride was over.”  Sad that these things are still happening.

The worst, though, was a, October 9th piece in Futurism, claiming that the “Godfather of Self-Driving Cars Says the Tech Is Going Nowhere.”  That view was from Anthony Levandowski, who founded a pertinent Google division, now Waymo, as one of its “key engineers.”  Among his non-cheerleading statements were “you’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little,” “the industry still amounts to little more than a bunch of glorified tech demos (paraphrased),” “it’s an illusion,” and “why are we driving around, testing technology and creating additional risks, without actually delivering anything of value?”  The time and money, described elsewhere in the piece as “nearly twenty years and some $100 billion,” haven’t been lacking, but have solved neither the general problem of not knowing when to ignore “slight changes in the environment” nor the specific one of not effectively executing “the elementary move of cutting left across traffic when there’s no light to make it easy.”

Is Levandowski, who had serious problems within the industry later in his career, correct?  If not, we need to see autonomous vehicles indefinitely usable beyond the smallest and most protected of niches.  If not, the action will continue to be in technology that helps drivers, who, along with the jobs of the professional ones, aren’t going away.

Friday, October 7, 2022

What Recession? Another Strong Employment Data Set, with Over a Quarter Million More Jobs and AJSN Showing Latent Demand Down Almost Triple That

Per this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, the good work times are still rolling.  We gained 263,000 net new nonfarm positions, close to the two published 250,000 estimates I saw.  Adjusted and unadjusted unemployment fell to 3.5% and 3.3% respectively, down 0.2% and 0.5%.  At 5.8 million, there were 200,000 fewer unemployed people than a month before, with 758,000, down 24,000, on temporary layoff, and again 1.1 million out for 27 weeks or longer.  The two measures of rank-and-file Americans’ connections to work, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, lost 0.1% and held to reach 62.3% and 60.1%.  The count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping less than full-time arrangements while seeking thus far unsuccessfully longer hours, is still oscillating, and this time improved 300,000 to 3.8 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings increased 10 cents per hour, still less than inflation, and are now at $32.46.  The number of people working rose 300,000 and is now 159 million. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric telling how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, lost over 700,000 to reach the following: 


The difference from August almost matches the effect of reduced joblessness, although the shrinking number of Americans wanting employment but not looking for it for a year or more, mostly offset by higher numbers of discouraged and the seasonal increase in willing workers in school or training, contributed significantly also.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN is almost 1.7 million lower, also with very close to that amount from lower official unemployment.  Only 30.8% of the AJSN is from that, meaning that nearly 70% of non-working people who would fill new positions have other statuses. 

On the coronavirus front, per the New York Times, between August 16th and September 16th the 7-day average of new daily cases plunged 38% to 62,194, hospitalizations fell 22% to 32,441, and deaths were off 4% to 449.  Daily vaccinations, helped by the new specialized booster, were up 9% to 299,222. 

What I see here is a strong match between employers and potential employees, with the increase in jobs again way higher than what our shrinking population gain absorbed.  We have Covid-19 looking more and more endemic instead of a pandemic and ever-improving numbers there, so plenty of people long out of work are returning.  It is possible that interest rate hikes will strongly influence this data next time, but people are still spending freely, more businesses are willing to pay current market rates, and high inflation, at least for now, is continuing.  Overall, we have real prosperity, so the turtle, once more, took a good step forward.