AlphaZero, machine learning, and the future of work

AlphaZero, machine learning, and the future of work

Not long ago I wrote about the end of decent paid jobs and the need for basic income. A startling recent advance in machine learning has only heightened my concerns. Last month, Google’s subsidiary, DeepMind, published a paper on AlphaZero, an artificial intelligence (AI) the company designed to play games. The AI started with only game rules. Here’s what happened next:

“At first it made random moves. Then it started learning through self-play. Over the course of nine hours, the chess version of the program played forty-four million games against itself on a massive cluster of specialized Google hardware. After two hours, it began performing better than human players; after four, it was beating the best chess engine in the world.”
—James Somers, New Yorker, How the Artificial-Intelligence Program AlphaZero Mastered Its Games

From “knowing” nothing about the game, in four hours the program became the strongest chess player in the world. AlphaZero also taught itself in a few hours to become the world’s best Go and shogi player.

As a schoolboy I played competitive chess for a few years. Although I haven’t played chess seriously since then, I still have a feeling for the game.

I was shocked watching AlphaZero’s tenth game with Stockfish, the strongest open-source chess engine in the world.

I’d describe AlphaZero’s play as completely solid, interspersed with incredible flashes of brilliance. Great human chess players have an uncanny ability to view a position and quickly select a few plausible moves for deeper study out of the many possible legal moves. The best grandmasters occasionally discover a brilliant and unexpected move in a game. AlphaZero found several during this game.

Having seen this game, I’d describe AlphaZero as the most creative, brilliant, and strongest chess player the world has ever seen.

From a novice to best in the world in four hours, is a level of performance that no human can match.

Now think about what would happen if this kind of performance could be achieved in human work environments such as:

  • medical scan diagnosis;
  • legal document creation;
  • engineering design; and
  • stock market trading.

These are only harder problems than playing a game because:

  • the problem space is larger; and
  • the data needed for learning can’t be self-generated by the AI itself and must be supplied by humans.

But these are not insuperable obstacles. If overcome, many high paid jobs for medical practitioners, lawyers, accountants, and financial analysts would disappear.

Are we moving towards a world where the only available work is in low paid “human service” areas where people are still cheaper than machines? Perhaps.

Until the arrival of robots capable of doing just about everything humans do. What work for humans remains then?

Image attribution: Wired

What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?

What's better than people augmented by technology at meetings?
There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:

“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche

At face-to-face meetings, we can facilitate relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs. This is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:

  • Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
  • We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
  • Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.

And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.

So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning. Do this via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.

I’ve wasted time at many events trying to use apps to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.

Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).

When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers. Once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that are still so common.

Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.

How the Apple Watch Series 3 improves my life

How the Apple Watch improves my lifeWhile exploring the New York City High Line for the first time in November 2017, I High Linestopped for lunch in the Chelsea Market, passed the Apple West 14th Street Store and on impulse went in to take a look at the Apple Watch Series 3 which had just been released. Though impressed while watching the original Apple Watch launch two years earlier, I was still wearing an inexpensive watch I’d purchased years ago in Zurich. This time I liked what I saw. Within 30 minutes I was the owner of a space gray 42mm aluminum Series 3. I added a space black Milanese Loop but passed on the cellular option.

As I write this, two months later, my Apple Watch has hardly left my wrist (you’ll see why later). Frankly I’m surprised at its positive impact on my life. Let’s list the ways…

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Four tools for communities of practice

HT Harold Jarche

Today, communities of practice — groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common — have become essential sources for productive learning, because they provide crucial bridges for social learning between our work community and our external social networks.

Here are four tools for creating, supporting, and enriching communities of practice.

Peer Conferences
In my post Conferences as Communities of Practice I explain how peer conferences can support communities of practice. (In 1992, the first peer conference I ever designed created a community of practice that has endured to this day.)

Listservs
Listservs are an old but still surprisingly useful technology that manages a list of subscribers and allows any member to send one email to the list, which then transparently sends it to the other list subscribers. Listserv software is available on multiple platforms and is free for up to ten lists of up to five hundred subscribers which should be sufficient for most communities of practice. While numerous commercial alternatives like Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups exist, there’s something to be said for self-hosted technology that doesn’t rely on third party providers who may close down or change services with little notice or recourse.

Slack
Slack can be used free for basic support of communities of practice (up to 10,000 messages), though many useful functions are only available in paid versions ($80+ per person annually). All Slack content is searchable. The product, initially targeted at organizations, has been evolving into a community platform, which, because of the cost is probably most useful for communities whose members already have corporate access.

Zoom
The ability to converse with community members via audio/video/chat on a scheduled or ad hoc basis is an important tool for maintaining and growing community connections online. For many years the free Google Hangouts was my go to tool for this purpose, but the service has become almost impossible to use on an ad hoc basis and Zoom seems to be the most popular replacement. For short meetings (up to a maximum of 100 participants for 40 minutes) the free Zoom Basic will suffice, but most communities will be well served by Zoom Pro (unlimited duration and participants; $180/year). Since any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference, this tool can be a cost-effective way for communities of practice to keep in touch.

Do you use other tools to create, support, and enrich your communities of practice? If so, share them in the comments below!

How to solve the infuriating HTTP error when uploading images or videos to WordPress

Here’s a foolproof method to fix the dreaded HTTP error seen when attempting to upload images, videos, or other accepted file types to the WordPress Media Library.

One of the most frustrating aspects of using the popular WordPress platform is running into this error when attempting to upload media. If you’ve never experienced this, you’re lucky! I run into this problem on ~1% of my image uploads and have wasted a lot of time and energy trying to resolve it.

solve HTTP error uploading WordPress
I’m not alone. The two million plus hits returned by a quick Google search for the cause of this problem make it abundantly clear that this problem is common, and that there is neither a simple explanation why it occurs nor a single solution that prevents it from happening. Here is a summary of some of the “solutions” that have been proposed:

  • Reduce image size
  • Increase PHP memory
  • Disable mod_security
  • Disable plugins
  • Change php.ini and /or .htaccess settings
  • Install a newer version of php
  • Disable image optimization
  • Change upload folder permissions

I’m not denying that these approaches work under some circumstances, and if you are consistently unable to successfully upload images to the WordPress media library you should probably investigate them. But be prepared for a lot of messing about with no guarantee of success. (At least, that was my experience.)

So, here’s a solution that works (note: except for websites hosted at wordpress.com, because plugins cannot be added to such sites).

How to avoid an HTTP error when uploading media to WordPress
Begin with these three one-time-only steps:

  1. Obtain and set up an FTP program so you can transfer files to your WordPress host. If you didn’t understand that sentence, don’t worry: here’s a beginner’s guide to obtaining an FTP program and using FTP to transfer files to and from your WordPress site.
  2. Install the Add From Server plugin and activate it. If you don’t know how to install a WordPress plugin, consult this clear beginner’s guide.
  3. From your WordPress Dashboard, check Settings > Add From Server. The default settings [User Access Control All users with the ability to upload files] & [Root Directory Do not lock browsing to a specific directory] should be fine for general use.

Once you’ve completed the above steps, you can upload media to your WordPress library as follows:

  1. Run your FTP program and navigate to the appropriate folder to upload your media. There are a couple of possibilities here. For a default WordPress installation, the appropriate folder will be your Uploads folder, i.e. (..[NameOfYourSite]/wp-content/Uploads/).
  2. If, however, you have the WordPress Dashboard Settings > Media option Organize my uploads into month- and year-based folders checked, you will probably want to upload your media into a subfolder of Uploads that has the form [CurrentFourDigitYear/CurrentTwoDigitMonth/], for example ..[NameOfYourSite]/wp-content/Uploads/2017/07/. Note that if this is your first upload for the current month, the folder won’t exist and you’ll need to create it using the FTP program.
  3. From your WordPress Dashboard, go to Media > Add From Server.
    solve HTTP error uploading WordPress
  4. Use the navigation links at the top of the Add From Server screen to navigate to the same folder you chose in step 1 or 2.solve HTTP error uploading WordPress
  5. Click the checkmark box (or boxes) next to the media you wish to add. Then scroll to the bottom of the page. There’s an option to set the imported date to the current date and time [default] or the file’s creation date and time. I think the default is most appropriate, but feel free to choose the alternative. Click the Import button and voila! Your selection(s) will be added to your WordPress Media Library!

That’s it! Although this description of the process is long, once you’ve set up your FTP program the five steps above take very little time to complete. I hope this has been helpful, and welcome your comments below!

The end of decent paid jobs and the need for basic income

The end of decent paid jobs and the need for basic incomeIn the summer of 1970 I had a cool teenager vacation job: writing computer programs for a trucking company in downtown Los Angeles. After I finished coding a new report, my boss asked me to share it with a small department’s employees. I told the fifteen people there what I had done. And I saw their horror as we realized that my report replaced what they had been doing for a paycheck.

I felt terrible about the consequences of my work. I felt angry with my boss who knew exactly what would happen. He had made me the unwitting messenger of bad news. I never found out the consequences, but we’ve all heard countless stories like this.

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22 great iPhone/iPad apps for event professionals

App_Store

Two years have passed since the last update of my favorite iPad/iPhone apps for event professionals. Apps continue to be born, evolve, and, sometimes, die—so it’s time for my latest list of event professionals’ great apps!

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14 great iPhone/iPad apps for event planners—2015 update

App_Store

Two years have passed since I last updated my list of favorite iPad/iPhone apps for event planners. While I’m still a big fan of five of the original apps I chose just two weeks after receiving my original iPad back in 2010 (Simplenote, DropBox, Square, Evernote, and GoodReader), apps continue to be born, evolve, and, sometimes, die—so it’s time for an event planners’ great apps update!

I’m still using the iPhone 5S, iPad 3, and the Tumi Alpha “everything bag” I gushed over in my 2013 app update, though I’m coveting an iPhone 6S, a newer iPad, and, maybe, an Apple Watch.

Rather than listing additions and removals from my two previous posts, I’m presenting a complete alphabetized current list, including updated descriptions that incorporate any notable new features I use. An [!] next to an app indicates it’s stood the test of time, while an [N] means it’s a new addition since my 2013 update.

BirdbrainBirdbrain, [!] $2.99
If you are active on Twitter (and I’d argue that most event planners should be) Birdbrain is a fantastic way to manage your Twitter network. The app provides an excellent overview and management of your followers and those you follow. Birdbrain handles multiple accounts, makes it easy to investigate anyone on Twitter, allows you to track unfollows as they occur, list people you’re following who don’t follow you, display mentions and retweets, and provides informative statistics showing changes in your Twitter stats over time. The only feature I’d like to see added is the ability to show inactive accounts you’re following. Recommended!

Dropbox_IconDropbox, [!] free for 2 GB, Dropbox Pro $9.99/month or $99/year
I’ve been using Dropbox for years on my office Macs, iPad and iPhone.

Dropbox keeps your files safe, synced, and easy to share between multiple computers and devices. All contents of the Dropbox folder on all linked devices (Macintosh, Linux, Windows, IOS, Android; even Blackberry and Kindle Fire!) running Dropbox are automatically synced when new files or changes are detected. You don’t have to be continually online; all changes sync once your computer has an Internet connection again. You can create shared folders, allowing several people to collaborate on a set of files.

The free service gives you 2GB of space on Dropbox’s servers, which was plenty for me for many years (and Dropbox offers ways to increase the free limit) but last year I took the plunge and upgraded to Dropbox Pro (see below). A nice feature is that the server stores the last 30 days of versions of your files, so you can revert to an older version if needed. If you want more storage, you can upgrade to Dropbox Pro for $9.99/month or $99/year. This paid upgrade includes 1TB of storage plus unlimited older versions of your files, remote wipe, read-only shared folders, and password protected shared links. It’s worth every penny to me.

The Dropbox app allows you to access your Dropbox files on your iPhone or iPad. Image, music, movie, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, PDF, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, HTML, and text file formats can be displayed by the app. Unlike the desktop versions of Dropbox, files are not stored automatically on a mobile device but are uploaded on request by marking them as Favorites.

Dropbox also includes a web interface to your files, so you can access them (and older versions) from any Internet connected computer.

While I was writing my books, I stored all my important files on Dropbox. It gave me great peace of mind to know that up-to-date versions of my book’s many files were being automatically saved remotely and on all my office computers.

evernote_logoEvernote, [!] free, Plus $24.99/year, Premium $49.99/year
Evernote is my go-to application for capturing information I want to be able to find in the future. I use it mainly for web pages, but it will file text notes, pdfs, spreadsheets, photos, voice memos, and screenshots too. Evernote clients are available for most mobile and desktop operating systems. Everything captured is made searchable—you can add your own tags if you like—and can be stored in specific categories (“notebooks”) if desired. The iPad version takes full advantage of the large screen. Your notes are stored on Evernote’s servers and locally and are synced to your mobile device and to Mac OS X and Windows computers running an Evernote client.

Evernote supplies web clipping functionality for all major desktop and mobile browsers, so, with a few clicks, it’s easy to safely capture that article you think could be really useful one day.

You can upload up to 60MB per month (with a maximum single note size of 25MB) using the free Evernote service, and this has always been adequate for me. The Plus version raises the upload maximum to 1GB/month with a maximum single note size of 50MB, the Premium service to 10GB/month with a maximum single note size of 200MB. Plus and Premium include some additional benefits, none of which have tempted me to pay for them. Yet.

GateGurugateguru, [!] free
GateGuru is an airport information app that was purchased by TripAdvisor in June 2013. While it attempts to replicate some of Tripit‘s functionality, I use it to scope out the places to eat (aka amenities) at airports. The traveler’s reviews, while sometimes spotty, usually allow you to pick out the best place to satisfy your current gustatory desires, and I’ve occasionally found a real gem tucked away on Concourse C that I’d otherwise have missed.

goodreader-logoGoodReader, [!] $4.99
GoodReader is an inexpensive app that allows you to transfer files to your mobile device, by Wifi or from an Internet cloud server, and reliably view them. Like the Dropbox viewer, it supports a huge range of file formats. Unlike other mobile file readers, GoodReader has no problem rapidly opening, displaying, and responsively scrolling through the 350-page ebook version of Conferences That Work and other large files I’ve thrown at it.

GoodReader syncs beautifully with Dropbox, allowing me to work on files on any computing device and then upload them to a GoodReader folder for convenient viewing. When I’m facilitating or presenting at an event, I’ll typically use GoodReader to display all relevant files in a multi-tabbed app window, allowing me to quickly refer to them when needed.

googlevoiceGoogle Voice, [!] free app, most but not all services are free
Google Voice has been around for years and has a bazillion options, many of which I don’t really understand. But that’s OK, because I find it very useful for three things: a) transferring calls made to my cell to my office phone when I’m at home where my cell phone doesn’t work (ah, the joys of living in rural Vermont),  b) replacing my cell phone provider’s voice mail and sending me an email and a noble attempt at transcription when I don’t answer my mobile, and c) texting. Now let’s be clear: I hate texting and refuse to pay the inflated rates that carriers charge for it on my cell phone, but sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with some people. Google Voice to the rescue! I can text for free from my free Google Voice number, which works with strangers as long as I let them know in the message that it’s me, Adrian Segar, texting them.

Incidentally, though I haven’t yet used this feature, calls made using Google Voice from outside the U.S. to U.S. numbers cost just 1¢/minute; a pretty good rate!

imessageMessages, [N] free
This is a no-brainer, especially if you’re a cheapskate like me that won’t pay more for texting. If someone has an iDevice, I can message them without paying for texts. Unlike texting, you get to discover whether your message/photo/movie was actually delivered or not. (If Messages could tell me the recipient saw my message, that would be even better, but I guess we’ll have to wait until brain monitor functionality is built into IOS 42.) Works well for me. I’ve heard there can be glitches if you abandon your iDevice and go over to The Dark Android Side, but you’d never do that would you? Would you?

opentableOpenTable, [!] free
OpenTable allows you to make free reservations at ~32,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. No more phone calls to a restaurant only to get an answering machine, having to leave a message, and wondering whether you’ll get the reservation you wanted or not. The app works quickly and many reservations give you OpenTable points which can eventually (you’d have to use it a lot) be redeemed for a discount off your meal.

Post-It PlusPost-it® Plus, [N] free
I’ve written in detail about this little gem here. Suffice it to say that if you do any kind of group work with sticky notes, this is a great tool for capturing, organizing, and sharing multitudes of these colorful little rectangles. Since I wrote the linked review, 3M has continued to add new features: you can now edit notes and add additional digital notes to existing boards.

square-logo

Register, [!, formerly Square] app free, card transaction fees extra
Square’s Register app provides a neat inexpensive way to easily accept card payments. You can create lists of the items or services you sell. It took me just a few minutes to set up Register for selling my first book three ways—paperback, ebook, or combo—at a presentation or trade show. When you sign up for the service, Square sends you a free swipe card reader that plugs into your iPad or iPhone. They have a free contactless (NFC) and chip card reader shipping soon, in time for the new EMV chip credit card merchant obligations that will be in force in the U.S. later this year. You can also process cash sales and send receipts to a buyer’s email address. Square provides a complete downloadable record of all your sales.

Square charges reasonable card fees: 2.75% for a swiped card and 3.5% + $0.15 for a keyed-in card. These are the only charges for the service; there’s no monthly fee or minimum and no contract or merchant account required. This is a great app for selling promotional items at events.

simplenoteSimplenote, [!] free
I rarely need elaborately formatted documents. What I do need is a simple text editor that imports ASCII, RTF or HTML files, backs up my writing safely, and synchronizes it across my mobile and office computers.

That’s exactly what Simplenote, combined with copies of Notational Velocity (free, open source) on my office computers do. Anything I write in Simplenote on my iPad (I rarely use it on my iPhone, though it works there) gets saved and backed up to the Internet cloud (on a free account at Simplenote). When I open Notational Velocity on an office computer, my notes there are synchronized. Similarly, any notes updated on my office machines are synchronized to the iPad when I open Simplenote. All communications are encrypted.

Both Simplenote and Notational Velocity offer blazing fast search and support thousands of notes.

While Simplenote now sports a Mac desktop version, I prefer to stick with Notational Velocity there because the former doesn’t support styled text (bold, italic, etc.)

For just pure writing, safely backed up and synchronized, you can’t beat the combination of these two free apps!

Swarmfoursquare [formerly Foursquare], [! & N] free
Foursquare, started as a game (be the mayor of places, win badges, and have more points than your friends) and a way to see where your friends are and what they’re doing. I live mostly in a rural area and, while I have occasionally discovered and met up with friends I didn’t know were near me, my main use of this service is to store a searchable history of where I’ve been. When did I drop off that luggage to be repaired? What was the name of that great place I ate dinner with Susie in Atlanta? When exactly was I in Anguilla in 2009? Foursquare’s history of my check-ins is often useful in unexpected ways.

In 2014, Foursquare tried to reposition their app by splitting it into two: Foursquare, a Yelp look-alike competitor, and Swarm, which would remain the “check-in” app. The move did not go well, especially after Foursquare removed the mayor feature in Swarm which took out some of the fun of checking-in. The company’s missteps cost it popularity—a lot less people seem to be checking in recently. Recently, they added back mayorships. Yes, I admit it, it’s fun to triumphantly win back the mayorship of my favorite local restaurant once in a while, but the history feature is the main reason I use Swarm these days.

WazeWaze, [!] free
Waze is my favorite traffic and navigation app of the many that I’ve tried (though some Uber drivers have told me that Google Maps now has more helpful junction navigation in big cities). Unlike traditional GPS units with traffic updates that are often found to be woefully out of date, Waze uses information from its own users to detect traffic snarls and reroutes you on the fly when necessary to avoid that accident that happened up ahead five minutes ago or the rush hour traffic jam building up on the interstate you normally drive on to get home. Its estimates of arrival time, even on long trips, are astonishingly accurate. Owned by Google, my only concern is that the company will start using my location in nefarious ways. If I start seeing too many annoying ads promoting the tattoo parlor I’m passing by I’ll reconsider. Until then, this is an amazing app that has saved me hours of driving and frustration, and shown me countless new neighborhoods as I bypass traffic where other drivers sit fuming.

wundergroundWunderground, [N] free
Goodbye Weatherbug Elite, Yahoo Weather (still think of you fondly, loved your simplicity), and all the other weather apps I’ve dated the last few years. I’m going steady with Wunderground now. Darling W (yes, we’re on first initial terms), your gorgeous graph interface makes it easy to get a quick big picture of the next ten days, your hour by hour forecasts are so handy for deciding whether to move the social indoors, and your weather map predictions load so fast. I’d be a fool to look at anyone else. Sure, W, I admit to a fickle past with weather apps, but now I’m seriously thinking about settling down for good. With you, always by my side…So, what’s it going to be like in Maine next week?

So event professionals, what have I missed? Do you have a favorite app I haven’t mentioned here? Let the world know in the comments!