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

The Reminder—a new way to obtain long-term evaluations of events

letter 8909849224_832820ea27_kCan conference organizers get evaluative feedback on the long-term outcomes of their events? Last week, I pointed out that short-term evaluations routinely solicited at events are unreliable. If we want to honestly learn whether our conferences create long-lasting change, we need evaluation methods that can be applied after an appropriate length of time (three months? six months? a year?—you choose!) rather than within a few hours or days of the meeting taking place.

Here’s one way I’ve devised to obtain long-term feedback. It’s based on an old technique “A Letter To Myself” (ALTM, aka “A Letter To My Future Self”) which you may have experienced at meetings over the years.

I call it The Reminder.

In the standard ALTM version, described in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, the organizers set aside around 30 minutes just before the end of the event, supply each participant with notepaper and an envelope, and ask them to reflect on the changes they would like to make in their lives as a result of the event over the next [3 months/6 months/year/appropriate time period]. People then write letters to themselves about their changes and insert the letters into the supplied envelopes, which they then seal and address to themselves. The envelopes are collected and mailed out, unread, by the conference organizers once the announced time period has passed.

ALTM works because the recipients find value in being reminded of their resolutions after time has passed. They can note what they have accomplished, what is yet to be done, and what they may have forgotten but still have energy to pursue.

When I run a Personal Introspective at the end of a peer conference, I often add the ALTM exercise to provide a personal “tickler” reminder of the changes participants decide to make.

The Reminder
To modify ALTM to incorporate long-term feedback, add the following to the envelope supplied to each participant:

Sample feedback form to be included in the A Letter To Myself envelopeBefore the end of the ALTM session, briefly go through the feedback form with the group. Explain that completing the form on receipt and promptly mailing it back will provide the conference organizers valuable information about the long-term effectiveness of the conference, and this will help make the event even better next time.

It’s harder to implement long-term evaluations of our events because participants have less motivation to provide the information we need. The Reminder combines the effect of receiving the participant-created letter with a quick request for feedback. Motivation can be increased by adding an incentive for returning the feedback form, like a small prize or chance to win a raffle from those who return the form. In this case, name/contact information should be added to the form.

What do you think? Can The Reminder be a useful tool for evaluating your events? If you use it, share how it worked in the comments below.

Photo attribution: Flickr user gufoblu

Meetings in Day Million

DayMillionI

“On this day I want to tell you about, which will be about a thousand years from now, there were a boy, a girl and a love story…”

From my earliest days as a reader I have loved science fiction. I think this is because good science fiction is the literature of ideas, as Pamela Sargent described it: a fascinating place where the consequences of making different assumptions about the world can be explored and expanded on in a myriad ways creatively tied to our human experience.

One evening in 1966, Frederik Pohl wrote Day Million: a classic science fiction short story that starts with the sentence above, and paints—in two thousand words—an ordinary yet unbelievable day in the future.

Take three minutes to read the story here.

The story ends with one of the most perfect final paragraphs I’ve ever read:

Read the rest of this entry »

The future of #eventprofs chats

Thank you everyone who participated in last week’s two #eventprofs chats about …the future of #eventprofs chats. Here are links to the survey results and the Tuesday transcript. I’ve had a chance to think about the discussion, and, as the de facto #eventprofs community manager (other drivers welcome), here’s what I plan to do in the future:

Organize one chat per week
Although we have had two weekly time slots for #eventprofs chats for some time (Tue 9-10pm and Thu 12-1pm EST), in practice we have been averaging just over one chat per week (58 in 2011). There was clear agreement that we should change how often we meet to once a week. I’m still open to anyone suggesting an additional short-notice chat on a hot topic, but I won’t be scheduling more than one chat a week.

Rotate the day and time we hold the chat
It was clear from the discussions that about half those who responded preferred daytime chats and half preferred evening chats. Rather than disenfranchise half our audience permanently, we’re going to rotate our chat times weekly between our existing Tue 9-10pm and Thu 12-1pm EST times. I’m not going to to be a robot about this; we may chat two Tuesdays or Thursdays in a row. But over the year, we’ll hold about the same number of chats on each day. Follow @epchat to be informed about upcoming chats.

Chat hashtag
We will keep using the #eventprofs hashtag for the chat. Yes, it contains a lot more, sometimes irritating, announcements (aka spam) than the good old days, but that’s the price of fame. The same would eventually happen for any new hashtag we adopted. Event professionals new to Twitter often discover our chats via the #eventprofs hashtag. Besides, do you really want to have to remember to check one more hashtag?

Chat topics
We have had a neat tool for suggesting and voting on #eventprofs chat topics for some time, but it has not been used much, though I publicize it regularly on Twitter. I did not receive any ideas on ways to increase suggestions for chat topics, though several new topics were suggested (thank you Michelle & Marvin!) which I’ve added to our tool. People liked the idea of having more guest speakers on the chat and I will try to solicit more of them. And I would really appreciate suggestions/introductions from the #eventprofs community (that means YOU); contact me, it only takes a moment!

OK, so how can I help?

  1. Follow @epchat to be informed about upcoming chats.
  2. Take just a couple of minutes to suggest and vote on #eventprofs chat topics. If there’s a topic you want to talk about, suggest it! If there’s a guest you want, suggest him or her, together with the topic! If everyone added at least one topic just once a year and did comparison voting on five pairs of suggestions, we’d have a great pool of suggestions.
  3. If you are interested in moderating or being a guest on an #eventprofs chat, just let me know! Include your name, suggested topic, and the day you’d like to be on.
  4. I would love to move our #eventprofs site from the creaky (but free) pbworks wiki to something more streamlined (a free WordPress site would probably work). But I don’t have the time to do this myself right now. If you would be prepared to help with this project, I promise to have your likeness, links, and a generous profusion of thanks prominently displayed on the resulting gloriously updated version. Contact me!

In the end, as always, the health of the #eventprofs community is up to you. My continuing goal is to support making the #eventprofs chats maximally useful to the greatest number of event professionals, within the constraints of volunteer time and energy. Comments and helpful suggestions are, as always, welcome.

Three things conference attendees really want to know about each other

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Connections with people are formed by our experience with them over time. (Yes, Buddhists and Taoists, the present moment is our only reality, but we still experience it through the filters of the history and desires in our brains.) Besides learning about people we’re with though our direct experience, we discover more by listening to their descriptions of their past and present experiences and their hopes for the future.

The first thing that happens at Conferences That Work is a roundtable, where each attendee answers the following three questions (there are no wrong answers!) to the group:

  • How did I get here? (past)
  • What do I want to have happen? (present & future)
  • What experience or expertise do I have that might be of interest to others? (past & future)

As people, one by one, answer these questions they share their past, present, and future with everyone in attendance. Each person opens a window through which the time line of their life can be seen more clearly. This sharing provides the foundation for connections to be deepened during the conference that follows.

Image attribution: Flickr user houseofsims

Anguilla supermarkets and the future of conferences

This is the third of my blog posts written while vacationing in Anguilla.

Supermarket shelvesAnguilla is a country of 14,000 people and four supermarkets. I like Anguillan supermarkets. None of them are chains and each has its own character, which makes shopping interesting, rather than the typically predictable American experience.

Nearly everything is imported. When we first started vacationing here, food arrived by ship once a week, usually making Thursday night peak shopping time. As the days passed, popular items like milk and vegetables vanished, only to reappear shortly after the container ships steamed into the harbor at Sandy Ground. Nowadays the shelves are stocked more regularly, but you still never quite know what you may find when you venture inside one of these idiosyncratic stores.

Each store has different strengths and weaknesses. One boasts an extensive liquor department, but seems to have something against vegetables. Another is clearly aimed at retired colonialists, with a fine display of British brand name staples and household knickknacks, while everyday staples are shortchanged. And a third provides the best assortment of local foods, but little in the way of candy for the kids.

What’s interesting is the evolution of these establishments over time. The older supermarkets used to have a monopoly on certain goods; if you wanted cream you had to go to Supermarket A, while Supermarket B was the sole supplier of Pampers. With more sources of supply, the possibilities have multiplied—and the stores have responded in very different ways.

Six years ago, Supermarket C was the most haphazardly stocked of the three we patronized. Its marketing philosophy seemed to be we’ll take anything we can get out hands on, stack it in an aisle, and see if it sells. Their stock gyrated so widely from visit to visit that we avoided shopping there unless we felt like being truly surprised. Not surprisingly, it was rare to see more than a few cars in the parking lot. Meanwhile Supermarkets A & B relied on their exclusive arrangements to offer, between them, a fairly comprehensive, if somewhat unreliable, selection of useful food and household products.

Fast forward to today. Supermarket C has been transformed. The premises are the same, but the shelves are now stocked with a comprehensive range of useful goods. And in addition, unlike competitors A & B, the store is open every day until late. As a result, it’s hard to find a space in the parking lot.

Meanwhile, Supermarkets A & B have rested on their laurels. We don’t have to shop in both places to get what we want any more. C is now our go-to store. And yet, though their traffic is down, we still notice customers shopping at A & B.

These days, those of us who don’t live on a small island know that failure to keep up with competitors in a commodity-driven retail market invariably leads to swift economic extinction. In Anguilla’s laid back environment, such change will probably occur more slowly, but eventually, unless they make significant changes, Supermarkets A & B will not survive.

You’ve probably guessed how this relates to the future of conferences. Think of Supermarkets A & B as set-in-their-ways organizers of traditional conferences. Think of C as progressive event planners who realize that people prefer to attend events that give them what they want rather than going to multiple events to get a piece here and a piece there.

In Anguilla, people’s needs for supermarket goods didn’t change, but improvements in the supply of imported goods into Anguilla allowed Supermarket C to change what it offered to better match what people wanted. Likewise, people’s professional needs for relevant content, meaningful engagement and networking haven’t changed. But we now have a host of new ways to supply content outside the traditional conference, and a host of new ways to find out what conference attendees actually want to do while they’re together. Ignore them at your peril. See you in the aisles at Supermarket C!

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ame/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0