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How to protect your job from automation

“The robots are stealing our jobs! 😱”

The threat of technology stealing our livelihoods is as old as the perceived menace of foreigners marrying our daughters. We are experiencing a wave of Automation, fuelled by the digital transformation.

PwC has a whole PDF devoted to this topic.

Yes, your CURRENT job is probably going away. What can you do about it?

This is not new.

When you think about important industries today, the textile industry is probably not the top of your mind.

In the 18th century, it was a big deal. It was so crucial for India that they have a weaver’s spinning wheel on their flag to this day.

“The hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society,”

Karl Marx

That wheel in the middle is Ashoka Chakra, a spinning wheel

And then the industrial revolution introduced a Mechanical Loom and Sewing Machines. People in UK previously employed in the textile industry started burning textile mills and factories, fearing for their futures. This has given birth to the term Luddite.

Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry. Over time, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization, or new technologies in general.

„Luddite” on Wikipedia

Fast Forward: The No-Code tools

Journalism, as it existed in the 20th century, is indeed going away. Social Media companies like Facebook and the democratization of publishing brought forward by WordPress.com, Medium, Substack, etc is molding the entire publishing industry into a different form.

(That form, of course, has troubling aspects on the social front – mainly the outrage epidemic, clickbait, and fake news., but this is a topic for some other day).

Career journalists take some solace in pointing out that the programmers face the same threat. No-Code tools and AI are going to take over, and nobody will be safe from disruption.

No-Code tools like Zapier, Webflow, Airtable, and others are meant to reduce your friendly neighborhood programmer into a drag & drop interface.

This is a very poetic vision: The harbingers of the technology snake will themselves face the doom of being made irrelevant.

People losing jobs in numbers is of course, something to avoid. As the weavers in the 18th century and the Horse Manure transporters in the 19th century, overly specialized programmers MAY lose jobs to no-code.

What always struck me in discussions about „jobs going away” is that jobs are ultimately… work. And there is always more work.

This is not even a good thing! Productivity increases in the industrial revolution, and the information society gains could have introduced shorter workweeks and more leisure time.

Instead, they produced more bureaucracy and gadgets. Humanity will always find more work, to a fault.

How can YOU thrive?

The fact that there will always be work to be done does little for your quality of life, does it?

If you have just been disrupted by the advent of new technology, you want to have food on the table, ideally, keep your living standards or improve them. You want a good job.

Generalist skills and Narrow focus is Antifragile.

„Jack of All Trades, master of none” is a shaming scheme developed by factory owners to keep their workers dependant.

An often recommended career trick is to combine two broader disciplines. Most skills can be synergistically combined to create more value. For example, mix Marketing with Computer Science or Sales with basically anything to unlock enormous potential. Warren Buffet recommends combining Public Speaking with any skill under the sun. Writing is another high-leverage skill (see David Perrell or Patrick Collison – Stripe CEO).

A journalist might apply his writing workshop to a new, niche field. Whatever future the new managing technology will bring, analysis, commentary, and explanation will always be needed. It may not look like old-school journalism, but the function will be the same.

Despite being somewhat knowledgeable about WordPress and payments systems, I also paint my job in very broad strokes. I am an Engineer that combines tools to solve problems. If these tools are no-code tools instead of programming languages – that only makes my job easier. Thinking in terms of systems interacting with each other and how they handle data is what Computer Science is about. Not coding in any specific language. Patrick McKenzie explains it beautifully in an essay ‘don’t call yourself a programmer’.

The ultimate power move is to apply this broad identity to a narrow field – something very niche and overlooked, where you can:

  1. Quickly become an expert, by virtue of no competition
  2. Be able to quickly move into and profit from that niche using your broader skill set.

Ben Thompson from Stratechery.com has explored it from a journalist angle in his essay „Never Ending Niches”:

What is important to note, though, is that while quality is relatively binary, the number of ways to be focused — that is, the number of niches in the world — are effectively infinite; success, in other words, is about delivering superior quality in your niche — the former is defined by the latter.

There will always be more work and more niches. The same disruptive force that disrupts the establishment also creates new job titles.

The trick is to be flexible enough to be able to move into those niches once they appear.

DEVS(show) : The Universe is (not) deterministic. Is it a bootstrapping compiler?

Last night I started watching the HULU show Devs, starring Nick Offerman.

In the first episode, we learn that Nick’s character – Forest is building a quantum computing powered machine to model the universe to a great degree of fidelity.

In the scene pictured above, Forest is launching into a monologue that Universe is deterministic. If he indeed succeeded in building a working model of the universe with predictive powers, then indeed, his conclusion would be accurate. I haven’t watched the whole series, but I suppose we will learn more.

In a second episode, we hear that they have a problem with the „fidelity” part. Their modeling is crude, and one proposed explanation is that:

modeling the universe may need an entire universe – one qubit per particle.

Why I don’t think this is possible

What struck me as wrong in this statement is that even if we somehow get a universe-size quantum computer with each particle tracked, the universe is made from more than particles.

In the model proposed in the series, we would model all of classical physics, but what about all the quantum soup?

What about the modeling machine itself and it’s interference? How do we model all those qubits?

The universe is a second-order chaotic system, which means that it reacts to predictions. This aspect is beaten to death in every pop-culture product featuring time travel, and implications are well-explored in the grandfather paradox.

Another Science-Fiction cliche, the Shroedinger’s Cat experiment presents problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics:

The scenario presents a hypothetical cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead, a state known as a quantum superposition, as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur.

The Copenhagen interpretation states, that the „randomness” of the uncertainty principle collapses to a state on observation. Deterministic universe (and an ability to run a simulation) would require us to predict this collapse.

Modeling only particles, how can we predict that? And since we cannot discount non-particles from the simulation, the question is:

Can the Universe be modeled using the tools we have in this universe?

Bootstrapping compilers

Bootstrapping is a process of compiling a new programming language. The idea is to write a programming language (they are created as any other program – people write them) using the language itself. Then, a bootstrapping compiler will compile the kernel of the „real” compiler, and it will take it from there.

The bootstrapping compiler is written in a different language – a one that already has a compiler (or assembly language that does not need one).

So my question may be translated: Is the universe a bootstrapping compiler or does it need one?

Living in a deterministic universe means no free will.

Humans are meaning-making machines. When Elon Musk proposed, that we may live in a simulation, people felt a little taken aback. However, it does not really matter if we do – and SingularityHub has a good explanation of why.

We will never be able to access „the layer running the simulation”, so for intents and purposes – it does not matter, it’s purely theoretical.

That is also why we won’t be able to model THIS universe. We may be able to model A universe – in that sense, we are a bootstrapping compiler. We may be a model running in some other universe – a bootstrapping compiler for us.

The term „bootstrapping” came from the expression „pulling oneself by one’s bootstraps”:

Widely attributed to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, (1781) where the eponymous Baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair (specifically, his pigtail), though not by his bootstraps; misattribution dates to US, 1901

Wiktionary

Bootstrapping itself is used as an example of a tall tale – something impossible and contradictory.

Even if it’s impossible, it will prompt us to learn more about reality

My coworkers and I had a chance to listen to a private keynote by Stephen Wolfram. While explaining the story behind Mathematica, he shared a quote that stuck with me:

If we are building models, one of the things we could make the model of is the universe

Stephen Wolfram

Don’t use your work voice at home

When you introduce yourself, what do you say?

“I am Kate Maria Artur, and I am an accountant journalist engineer at  Apple SpaceX Automattic„… Most of us will use the job title as a representation of who we are.

My mom infuriates me, and it’s teaching me a lesson about work. She infuriates me with a particular voice, a type of preachy „Maybe you should think about THIS” type of tone. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

See, it took me a pandemic to figure out WHY it’s so annoying.

My wife and I are living in a summer house together with my mom and a new dog. It’s a journey of self-discovery, and one of the lessons I received is seeing my mom work. She is a high school teacher and tries to teach remotely, over Zoom.

And she uses THE VOICE when teaching. The same one I hate. My mom tries to literally lecture me when we have a disagreement!

I, on the other hand, am an engineer. My default reaction is to diagnose and solve every problem. This is what I’m good at. Surely, if we address the core issue of every discussion, we can move on, right? Don’t try this at home.

Turns out, sometimes people sometimes want you to listen to them. Shocker, right? They don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want their problem solved, they just want to get their emotions out. You may not think of this as a professional behavior to have at work, but in your personal relationships, that may be a thing.

We all play our roles.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

William Shakespeare

Mammals are hell-bent on protecting their identity and acting accordingly. The famous, (but now under reevaluation) Stanford Prison Experiment concluded, that regular people can do horrible things when assigned a new identity. Acting against our identity and assumed roles introduces Cognitive Dissonance, which causes heavy psychological stress. Every cell in our body wants to act according to what we are.

Applied behavioral science recognizes this. Master Key System, Think and Grow Rich, and The Secret all focus on addressing identity first and letting behavior follow. Tony Robbins says that “Identity is everywhere. We do what we believe we are”.

When we tie our identity to work, we continue to perform similar functions at home, which can cause issues.

Information processing choices

When faced with a new piece of information, you can do a couple of things with it. Your reaction can be:

  1. Reflexive
    fight or flight, etc
  2. Pattern matching/ problem solving
  3. Empathy / Connection
    Seek to understand the experience
  4. Mining for potential

Most professionals’ job description will fall on the spectrum of „#2 – Pattern matching/problem-solving”.

Recognizing patterns as „another one of those” (as Ray Dalio puts it) is a cornerstone of not only Engineering and Medicine but also Law, Investing.

Modern economy rewards jumping straight into problem-solving mode. “World’s biggest challenges are also the world’s biggest business opportunities”, according to Peter Diamandis. The more problems you solve, the bigger the big shot you are. And then you get back home.

Every cell in your body will ache to do what you have done all day – solve problems and bark orders.

But at home, you are not a bigshot any more. You are an accountant journalist engineer husband, mother, or a son. Leave the bigshot voice and, better yet – identity at the door. Be human, emphatise or help somebody explore the potential.