Category Archives: artificial intelligence

If it is always “Day 1” at Amazon, it is Day 10 in Government

jeff_bezos_headshot11“I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me.  [So] what does Day 2 look like?”

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1 [at Amazon].”

So says Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, soon to be a trillion dollar company, in his annual letter to Amazon’s stakeholders.

What are the lessons Government can learn from Bezos and Amazon?  But also, how is Government different from Amazon and other entrepreneurial private businesses?

Government is NOT at Day 2

The City of Seattle is at Day 53,830 (incorporated December 2, 1869) and the United States is at Day 87,948.   Governments have been around for dozens, hundreds of years.  They rarely go into “excruciating, painful, decline” and very very rarely die.   Are governments irrelevant?  Try getting a driver’s license or not paying your taxes.

But this longevity also leads to complacency, poor or indifferent customer service, and skepticism or outright hate by some citizens.   And governments are in competition – for industry, business, skilled and educated citizens, revenue and tax dollars.   Poorly operated governments drive away business and smart citizens, and they decline, even if they don’t die.

process-as-king-cartoonProcess as Servant, not King

Every private company and every government has bureaucracy, process, and procedures to do its business.  But in private enterprise or government, process is should not be the goal:  satisfied customers are the goal.

Jeff Bezos wants a customer-obsessed culture where Amazon employees “experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight”.

Almost always governments – and most large corporations – focus on the process of customer service, not the customer.  We make following procedures and abiding by policy take center stage, no matter what happens to our customers. The ugly episode where United Airlines recently had police drag a customer off a plane is a one example.  But government – and the Veteran’s Administration is a another example – makes process King.

This isn’t because individual employees aren’t committed to the mission – the VA is filled with thousands of dedicated employees (second only to the postal service in total numbers), working hard to take care of veterans.  But it also has bureaucrats for whom process is King, and too often they are in charge.

This lesson of keeping the focus on customers comes in tiny increments. I recently stayed at a Hilton Hotel which had a happy hour with free beer.  I arrived 15 minutes after the end of happy hour.  The bartender asked “were you here for happy hour”?  I honestly replied “no”.  She gave me a complimentary beer anyway.  In doing so, she made me a delighted customer.

In a more substantial example, I needed assistance on a social security and Medicare application.  I went to a local social security office and had to “take a number and wait in line” for more than 30 minutes.  But when I saw a counselor, she did not hurry me, asked me good questions, and gave me wise advice on choices with advantages and disadvantages of each.  Then she executed on my choice – she made it happen.  I walked away delighted by customer service, despite the wait.

We need to empower government employees to do the right thing, just like Amazon, Nordstrom and similar businesses do.

Embrace external trends

Technology for customer service innovates quickly.  Traditionally government has moved slowly and has been risk adverse.  This must change.

Computers have automated tasks which could be described with clear rules, if-then statements, and algorithms.  Think of an algorithm as a recipe where the inputs and outputs (ingredients) are described along with the steps (procedure) necessary to make the entree.

Private companies now embrace machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to power chatbots, text messaging, frequently-asked-questions and help desks.    IBM is harnessing its artificial intelligence engine Watson to revolutionize law firms, healthcare and help desks.   The City of New York is trying to use Watson to fix its aging 311 system.

Bezos points out several projects in which Amazon uses AI, including Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drones, its new futuristic grocery stores, and its virtual home assistant, Alexa.

Siri-cartoonVirtual digital assistants are proliferating in homes and businesses.  Burger King intentionally created  “TV commercials that cause Google’s voice-activated, artificial intelligence-driven Google Home speaker to start talking about the Whopper sandwich” (USA Today).  Amazon’s Alexa, invoked by its Echo devices in millions of homes, now will start appearing in many other devices including automobiles.

But few governments embrace these leading-edge technologies, preferring to force our customers to “telephone between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM” including the “our menu options have changed” phone tree, or to physically, actually show up at a government office to do business.

Public safety officers – law enforcement and firefighters – heavily use two-way radio, but are forced to sit at a keyboard to type reports or make routine queries like checking license plate numbers or verifying identities.  These are all tasks which could be automated with natural language processing and speech-to-text capabilities available in Alexa and similar products.

Governments need to adopt these high-value customer service technologies rapidly.

High-Velocity Decision Making

Most governments and large companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly.  In the case of governments, the decisions can be excruciatingly slow.  For some reason government employees love to play “gotcha”, trying to find every risk and every potential problem with a new idea, even if the chances of the issue materializing are one in a million.

When I was the Chief Technology Officer at the City of Seattle, I would gladly take one enthusiastic, “can do”, positive, product manager looking at the “new idea” glass as half full instead of a dozen devil’s advocate employees who always want to see the glass half empty, or an engineer who would say “the glass doesn’t meet our specifications”.

Speed matters.   Many decisions are trivial and inconsequential.  They can be easily reversed.  Make them fast.   But the very worst outcome is to banish a decision to a committee or kick it upstairs for a more senior manager to make.

Governments are Not Businesses

However there are differences between governments and private businesses.

Governments cannot choose their customers – we need to accept all comers.  This includes those with special needs, low income, the senile, the mentally disturbed, the homeless and the technologically challenged.   This often means we will have a “real person” help desk as well as a chatbot.

Governments are in the eye of public scrutiny.  Amazon can hide most of its bad decisions (the very public failure of the Fire Phone is an obvious exception).  Government cannot.  Mistakes such as a $43 million budget overrun for the City of Seattle’s utility billing system make headlines and are featured on the 11:00 PM news.

Does this mean government should avoid big projects?   Not at all:  Governments must embrace modern cloud-based technologies, professional project management and agile development of software systems, delivering incremental value every 6 to 8 weeks.

ChieGovernments don’t fail, private businesses do.   The United State Government has been around since 1776.  The City of Seattle has been operating since 1869.  Governments don’t face the same competitive pressure as private businesses.   Nevertheless, governments do compete for economic development, industry and citizens to locate within their boundaries.   Successful governments boom, unsuccessful ones languish.

Governments are operated by elected officials, not CEOs.    Mayors, City Council members, County Executives, Governors, legislatures and other elected officials run our various governments.   But almost all governments have three branches – executive, legislative and judicial.  These branches check and balance each other, slowing decision making.    Elected officials also … well … need to run for re-election.   That increases their aversion to taking risks.   Amazon and many private businesses, run by a CEO and a relatively uninvolved Board of Directors, can be nimbler.

It is always Day 1 at Amazon.  If Day 2 is stasis and irrelevance, government should try to be at day 1.5.

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Nostalgia of the 2040s

20th_century-victoria-and-albert-museumThose of us who can remember the 20th Century fondly recall artifacts and phrases from our “youth”.   And time marches inexorably on.  The cool, whiz-bang, stuff of 2017 is the nostalgia of 2040.

First, as a bit of a reminder, here’s some of today’s technology nostalgia:

  • Television that only came in two colors – black, and white (well, and a few shades in between)
  • Telephone book, telephone booth, party line (and we are not talking politics here), telephone operator.
  • Video tape – along with video “tape” we’ve also remember Beta video recording, VHS video recording and “film” among other terms. Some of us older folks still talk about “filming” or “taping” but really “recording video” or something similar should be the operative term.  Related terms like photo film and negative are also gone from the lexicon.
  • No, not Google maps, but honest-to-goodness paper maps that you could get for free at the gas station as the station’s hired help filled your car for you (something which still happens in Oregon, incidentally).
  • Library research. There was a time when writing a term paper or doing research required a library card and a lot of work finding and reading books and magazines.  Now “research” is simply a Bing search and Wikipedia from a computer.
  • And quite a few other reminders: floppy disks, Blockbuster, game boy, transistor radio, cassette players and tapes, Polaroid cameras.
  • Humans as computers. See the movie Hidden Figures to understand this one.

dui_checkpoint_sign-orangecountyweeklyWhen the 2040s roll around, presuming civilization still exists, what out-of-date artifacts and phrases will we remember from 2017ish?   Here are a few of my ideas:

  • “Extra DUI Patrols On Now”. These signs often appear above freeways on readerboards.   People will still get drunk in 2040.  And they will still climb into cars.  And I don’t think there will a magic sobering pill or drug.  But all automobiles will be self-driving.  In fact it might be illegal to manually drive a vehicle on a public highway.  So DUI (and speeding tickets and auto injuries and millions of associated jobs) will be history.
  • Automobile ownership. People will still own cars, in the way that they own Brownie Cameras or a Victrola today: as an historic artifact to be polished and preserved and admired.  I suspect ride sharing services and public ownership of many vehicles will replace private ownership.
  • Dying of cancer. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic here, especially given the Trump Administration’s proposal to eviscerate funding for medical and health research, but it appears that genetically tailored cancer treatments and other similar discoveries will make cancer an historical anomaly by the 2040s.  Not too many folks will be nostalgic about it, though.
  • Fighter pilots. With the advent of drone warplanes, it is hard to believe that manned fighters or bombers will exist in the 2040s.
  • Paper forms. I was amazed, when I became a federal government employee in August of 2016, that almost all my in-processing consisted of a stack of paper forms on which I wrote my name, date of birth and social security number.  We’ll still use paper in 2040, but hopefully NOT for in-processing to a new job.
  • Certainly many many of today’s jobs will be automated.  Routine, repetitive, physical labor jobs are the first to automate, and perhaps 50% of the work in today’s economy will be done by robots in 2040.  But few jobs are 100% susceptible to automation, so work is likely to change, rather than completely go away.  Indeed, people may end up doing physical work for enjoyment – carpentry and gardening as examples.
  • Smart phone. The smart phone and the tablet computer have fundamentally changed the character of life and work over the past 15 years.  But the newest versions of these devices are only incrementally better than their predecessors.   I suspect that another personal technology innovation is lurking in the next 25 years.  I know it will have a voice control component (Bixby from Samsung or Alexa from Amazon or something similar).

2001-space-stationOn the other hand, I’m fairly certain some facets of life are unlikely to change significantly over the next 25 years:

  • Space travel (or lack thereof). It is amazing that the last manned moon landing was 45 years ago in December, 1972.  Arthur C. Clarke imagined huge space stations in orbit around the earth, and missions to Jupiter for 2001, wildly optimistic.  Elon Musk, China and others are planning moon and Mars missions.   There will be some such missions, but I think human space travel will still be relatively rare in the 2040s, or relegated to suborbital, expensive, pleasure jaunts for the wealthy.
  • The 20th Century heralded some major innovations in the kitchen.  Indoor plumbing, refrigerators, dishwashers, gas and electric ovens are all innovations which have really occurred in the last 100 years.  Indeed, only the microwave oven and the Keurig coffeemaker are recent innovations of any widespread significance in the kitchen.   Remember the TV dinner?  This quick-to-fix, complete-meal-on-a-tray never really caught on, perhaps because the tray tasted almost as good as the food in it.
  • Artificially intelligent killer robots. Nope, I don’t think the singularity will occur by 2040.  I love the concept of IBM Watson and similar “artificial intelligences”, but think we have a long way to go.  And I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live in a world where machines are more intelligent than humans.

I’d welcome your thoughts on any of this, via comment or email, but particularly any ideas on innovations you see (or don’t see) over the next 25 years.

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Is 2017 the Year for Big Change in Civic Tech? No.

No.

big-diaper-change2017 is not the year for Big Change in city, county or state tech.   I’d argue NO year is a year for “Big Change” in the technologies used by government.   Government does not change fast, which may be a Good Thing.

Civic Technology – the information technologies used by local, state and federal governments – typically plod along many years behind commercial adoption of technology and a decade or more behind the latest, leading edge, advances in tech.

Here are some examples: commercial companies go whole hog to adopt cloud technologies while government still operates data centers and even builds new ones (State of Washington, 2014).   Consumers and commercial companies adopt the iPhone; government still uses the Blackberry or (Congress and President Obama finally ditched them in 2016) or doesn’t even issue smart phones to its first responders.   Commercial companies adopt agile development, with sprints that update apps every few weeks; governments still do “big” multi-year projects which invariably go over budget and implement years later than planned, often with semi-disastrous consequences.

Stephen Goldsmith, Director of Innovation in Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and former Mayor of Indianapolis, believes 2017 will be the year for technology breakthroughs in government such as virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, chatbots, natural language processing (think Alexa, Siri or Cortana), machine-to-machine communications and predictive analytics.

I’m not so sure.

Or rather, I am virtually certain 2017 will NOT be the year for chatbots, artificial intelligence and natural language processing.  I’m pretty sure we won’t get very wide adoption of predictive analytics, especially given the recent implosion of “predictive policing”.

There are a number of reasons for my skepticism, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Ok, so if I’m certain no one will be saying “Alexa, pay my parking ticket” in 2017, what technologies will governments be adopting?

  1. iot-smart-cities-nlc-dec-2016Smart Cities. Cities are finally networking their sensors and harnessing the Internet of Civic Things (IoCT) to improve transportation, public safety, and quality of life.   Kansas City, Missouri, led by a gutsy Mayor Sly James and Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett, along with networking vendor Cisco, is leading this charge with LED street lights, transportation signal timing and tracking, and a smart city map.  Former Mayor Mark Funkhouser, now publisher of Governing Magazine, also deserves credit for his innovative leadership style, as does Google Fiber, for making KCMO its launch city.  Boston will not be far behind as it received 104 responses from 85 companies for its smart city RFI, one of which includes outfitting the city with 15,000 smart street lights.  And Columbus, Ohio, has the right idea – using tech to help people – rather than tech for tech’s sake – as it uses its Smart City Challenge Grant to try and reduce deaths of infants and connect low-income residents to jobs.
  1. Free public Wi-Fi. This was a totally stupid idea when it first surfaced in Philadelphia in 2004, and died a slow, lingering death there and in a hundred other cities across the nation.  But now, with advent of smart street lights, well-developed municipal fiber networks, and the whole concept of “smart cities”, the idea has come of age.   If a city is already connecting its parking kiosks, street lights, public buildings and other infrastructure to the network, popping up “free” public wi-fi is trivial.  New York City’s LinkNYC, after it fixed its porn problem, is starting to be quite successful, with 600+ kiosks enabled.  Kansas City is using its smart city platform to provide Wi-Fi to 50 blocks in the downtown area.
  1. Cloud computing. Governments have been extraordinarily reluctant to get rid of their dinosaur data centers.  The move to the cloud is actually accelerating now, led by initiatives such as body-worn video storage in Taser’s evidence.com, for example, which is hosted by Microsoft in its Azure cloud.   But, as a matter of fact, many other cloud based solutions are being adopted by government such as NeoGov for human resources, Accela for licensing, permitting and finance, and Workday for human resources and financial management.  In many cases the line departments (utilities, public works, permitting, public safety) of governments acquire these cloud solutions, either with the support of their IT departments or despite them.
  1. Ufirefighting-drones-jpgnhumaned aerial vehicles – UAVs or Drones. Drones seem to have suddenly exploded on the scene a couple of years ago when the technology was ripe, although radio-controlled aircraft have been around for decades.  Now, however, governments have discovered the tremendous usefulness of these aircraft, far beyond the military applications.   North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is working with other agencies to use drones in crises ranging from flooding to traffic collisions.     Use of drones in search-and-rescue (SAR) is becoming so commonplace there is even an organization of 1,100 SAR drone pilots, which goes by the name of SWARM.   Both police and fire agencies are using drones for searches, observing major fires to guide firefighting, and other purposes.   We will see a major expansion of use in 2017.
  1. Body-worn video (BWV). Body-worn video burst on the scene after the Ferguson, Missouri, riots, with many police departments adopting them quickly, without thinking about the privacy and policy implications.  We will not only see improved policy controls, but also see wider use of BWV for officers and detectives to walk around and describe serious auto collisions and crime scenes in great detail, easing investigation and prosecution.   While the original reason for use of BWV was making police officers more accountable, we’re also seeing increased professionalism, decreased liability (fewer sustained complaints) and better investigations, according to work done by Dr. David Makin of Washington State University.  In 2017 more law enforcement agencies will realize these benefits, along with, of course, an increased workload for officers, detectives and prosecutors.

But how about those predictions of chatbots, virtual assistants, natural language processing and artificial intelligence?

Well, these technologies are all linked.  Natural language processing (“Alexa”) allows humans to easily communicate to virtual assistants, which, in turn, can engage artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson, Google Tensorflow or Microsoft’s Scattershot (my reference to the significant work Microsoft is doing, but not necessarily tied into a single AI engine).

alexa-call-911But it will take significant time for these engines to be linked to civic problems.   Las Vegas is writing some skills for Alexa and New York City would like to harness Watson for its 311 center.  But, like everything else in government, don’t expect a “Big Change” to suddenly happen, but rather an evolutionary development and adoption of these technologies.

With some luck, sometime in the near future, there will be a Sherlock AI for helping detectives solve crimes and a Bob-the-Builder AI for helping people navigate the myriad building and zoning regulations of a modern city and similar ways that AI linked to natural language processing and personal assistants or chatbots help city residents.

But not in 2017.

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Can Government CIOs Avoid Politics?

The short answer, as known by everyone who has been a government Chief Information Officer, is a resounding “NO”.

This question is becoming more urgent as a new federal government administration in Washington charts its own, unique, path of policies and directives.   But it is a question which is lurking in the shadows of the march of technology, and will emerge as a more painful question for CIOs soon.

korematsu-fred-googleTechnology companies and executives have tried to stay apart from politics.  Taking sides on political questions is usually the recipe for customer disaffection and even a boycott.  #deleteuber has gone viral in the past few days as customers perceived Uber lacked opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration.   In response to that same order, many have called for a boycott of Starbucks after its CEO planned to hire 10,000 immigrants, responding to that same presidential order.  Most companies involved in technology are now taking sides on this political issue.  Google, for example, wryly protested the order by putting an image of Fred Korematsu on its search site.  Korematsu protested the internment (by Executive Order) of Japanese-American’s in World War II.

Since the emergence of the role of chief information officer in the 1990s, federal, state and large city CIOs have always been involved in politics.  They work for elected officials who are members of political parties, and are expected to have allegiance to those individuals and those parties.

On the other hand, CIOs of smaller cities and counties – usually those with a professional city or county manager – often have long tenures if they are professionally competent.   Steve Monaghan of Nevada County, California, has served in that role since 1999.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County, Michigan, has served as CIO and Deputy County Administrator since 2005 and was information technology director prior to that.

Competent and politically savvy CIOs of larger cities and counties have survived changes in their executives too – witness Joe Marcella’s 18 years in Las Vegas.  Others have successfully moved between jobs in major jurisdictions such as Cathy Maras who started as CIO in Cook County and is now in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Steve Reneker who has moved from the City of Riverside to the City of Los Angeles and is now in Riverside County.  Adel Abeid, Jon Walton and Beth Niblock are other examples of successful CIOs moving between multiple large jurisdictions.

In the future, however, government CIOs are going to face daunting political and ethical questions, for examples:

  • Facial Recognition. Your City (county, state) operates video cameras in public spaces.  These might include traffic cameras, security cameras or surveillance cameras in public spaces.  Your executive wants you to implement facial recognition, and build a database of individuals who attend protest marches, to find those who commit violence and crimes in order to arrest and prosecute them.   While this is a noble mission, such a database also will capture the identities of many others who are legitimately exercising their right to free speech.
  • Social Media. Your police chief or executive asks you to find and implement software to scan social media use by existing and prospective employees.   The immediate need is to make sure they are not criminals, racists, or committing other illegal acts.   But that same database could be used to determine their political affiliation and views.    It is clearly unethical to use such information when making employment (or continuation of employment) decisions about employees protected by civil service.  But is it ethical to consider such information for political (“at will”) employees or in jurisdictions without civil service?  Could such information be used to go on a “witch hunt” for employees who do not share the chief executive’s view?
  • Protected classes. Your executive is concerned about terrorism and potential hacking or damage to the City’s image by disgruntled employees.  You know that disgruntled employees are a primary cause of cyber theft and other insider threats.  Your executive asks you to use a social media monitoring tool and other technology to build a dossier on employees who potentially pose such threats, especially if they have family/friend links to known terrorist nations.
  • New technology. Your executive demands you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s call center for city services.   You can implement a variety of new technologies such as chatbots, natural language processing (think “Alexa” or “Siri”) and even artificial intelligence such as IBM’s Watson.   Such technologies will eliminate dozens or hundreds of living wage jobs for people of color and those who are single parents or the sole breadwinner for their families.  While a typical response might be to offer re-training programs, the displaced workers in many cases will not have the basic education or abilities to learn the replacement high-tech jobs which will become available.

The convergence of the new “America First” policy in Washington, D. C., and the availability of a number of new technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to natural language processing to video analytics (facial and object recognition) to massive databases with associated “big data” analytics (and the threat of significant misinterpretation) will present many dilemmas for the government Chief Information Officer.

artificial-intelligence-iconEven more frightening, artificial intelligence will vastly transform the face of society and the economy of the United States over the next 20 years, as documented in a 2016 federal government report here.  Millions from jobs ranging from call centers to lawyers to accountants to everyone who drives a vehicle are at risk of elimination or significant change.  All of this technology change will be infused with politics as elected officials scramble to create jobs, save jobs or fix blame for loss of jobs.

Government CIOs work for these elected officials.  CIOs have this technology tiger by the tail.  They should pray it does not eat them alive.

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– I-Everything, Lawyers, Watson and Plumbers

The I-Everything

The I-Everything?

Robert Reich* had an interesting piece on October 10th on NPR’s* Marketplace:  “Is technology to Blame for Chronic Unemployment?” He talked about the immanent end of many jobs and professions in the developed world, and specifically the United States, due to massive changes in technology.  Read or listen to it here.

The logic of his arguments is quite clear.

First, the miniaturization of electronics coupled with the consumer technology revolution (smart phones and tablets) is really just in its infancy. Gee, the smart phone, for example, is just five years old, and the tablet computer (in its very usable, iPad-type format) is not even three years old. We’ve just begun to tap their potential.

Next, we are seeing more and more data and information squeezed into ever smaller spaces. While the first personal computers had less than 640 kilobytes of memory*, today we have widely available thumbdrives with 64 gigabytes of memory. Service members and others can carry their entire medical history on a chip in a credit card.

Indeed, Reich said, we may very well, in the future, carry an “all purpose” device, the “I-Everything” as he dubbed it. It could contain all relevant information about you, ranging from medical history to financial information to personal preferences (all suitably encrypted, one would hope!). Using a personal-area-network it could communicate with many other devices in or on your body to monitor your health, allow self-diagnosis of medical issues and even carry on most routine financial transactions and interactions. The I-Everything.

These revolutions in technology have already terminated many kinds of jobs. Word processors and data entry jobs are gone and secretaries, if not gone, are highly endangered. Telephone and switchboard operators, and many newspaper jobs, are gone.

More jobs will fall victim to technology. Bank tellers are endangered, as are travel agents. Retail store clerks are still employed in great numbers, but a decline must set in as more shopping goes online. Even restaurant servers may be somewhat endangered as i-Pads and other devices become common at tables.

IBM's WatsonThis change will strike at professional jobs too.  Sloan-Kettering medical centers have been testing the use of IBM’s Watson to help do diagnosis of medical conditions and, starting soon, it will start dispensing medical advice.

(You undoubtedly remember Watson from its appearance on the Jepoardy television show.)

We can see many other professional jobs which will be suspectible to the “artificial intelligence” powers of computers such as Watson.   Such jobs might include attorneys and finance. Lawyers research and interpret laws, but computers are vastly better at raw text-based search. And artificial intelligence as demonstrated by IBM’s Watson computer can do much, if not all, of the interpretation and preparation of legal documents and briefs.

My title “Death of Lawyers” is a little dramatic. Lawyers aren’t going to die, but their profession will rapidly and significantly shrink. I suppose we’ll need trial lawyers for a while but almost all the “clerical” work of legal documents, wills, property transfer, tax preparation and so forth will fall victim to information technology. Most law schools and paralegals will soon follow. Indeed, most of the process of adjudication (“judges”) can probably follow as well.

IBM has 200 people working on applying applying Watson’s abilities to commercial problems like medicine and finance.   And my purpose in writing this column is not to “raise alarm” and cause people to “rise up against the machine”.    Computing is going to keep advancing and hundreds of companies and thousands of people are working to make that happen.  Smarter machines will have many applications to improve our quality of life.

Many professions, however, will experience resurgence. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics are definitely not susceptible to replacement by Watson – or to outsourcing to China and India either, for that matter.  But the sophisticated computers embedded in homes, appliances and automobiles will dictate more sophistication in these professions. Childcare, nursing and eldercare will still require “real people”.   Demand for, and the valuing of, these professions will rise.

Computers such as IBM’s Watson will eventually merge with the “I-Everything”, I think, to produce a true digital assistant, able to interact and transact much of the routine business of your usual life. The only trouble is that, with so many people out of work, who will be able to afford one?

Digital GovernmentWell, this is, actually, supposed to be a blog about the use of technology in government. What do these revolutionary changes mean for government workers?

It’s hard to see how the “I-everything” with integrated Watson can replace cops, firefighters, water pipe workers, electrical line workers, emergency medical techs, pothole-fillers and parks and recreation staff. Spouses angrily fighting with each other, throwing kitchen utensils and pulling out knives and guns – and then calling 911 – are not exactly susceptible to Watson-like reasoning. “Bureaucrats”, in the sense of employees who process documents, issue licenses and permits, and manage finances, may see their jobs in jeopardy.

And, of course, we’ll always need elected officials. Who would want to go to a public meeting and yell at a computer?

Or, perhaps, we’ll just send our I-Everthings to the meeting to yell at the electeds’ I-Everythings!


*Robert Reich is former Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and presently professor of public policy at University of California – Berkeley. http://robertreich.org/

*NPR – gee, you know what NPR is – its that public broadcasting service which includes Big Bird and Jim Lehrer and others who may be sacrificed to the god of Federal Deficit Reduction.

*Bill Gates did NOT say “640k of memory should be enough for anybody” – see here.

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