Thinking about AI, meeting geek-girls and then back to work.

Lots has been going on in Q4 of 2016 professionally and personally (and all good, I might add) that has led to a hiatus in blogging. Don’t worry for me, I like keeping busy and if circumstances don’t keep me busy, I’ll keep myself busy. That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading, just that it happens on planes, trains and occasionally between late night meetings. A couple of books worth a concrete mention in this post, together with my learnings from the Geek Girl Conference 2016: The Way We’re Wired. Before my ramblings, I’d like to thank everyone who reads this and to those who send me their opinions and book recommendations back!

A lot of my reading has been done on flights and commutes with a disrupted rhythm (and less discipline than before). Given that the FT Business Book of the Year Award short-list and long-list has been announced, it seems only right that I finally get round to talking about The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, the 2015 winner of the award.

The jacket of the version I have read (in paperback), available in the UK and edited to include UK-relevant examples

Put simply, this is a strong essay in labour economics and the impact of technology on the full workforce as we know it. From a technology standpoint, you’re not going to learn anything new if you’re already clued up on machine learning and neural networks. From an economics standpoint, you’re not going to be bowled over by any of the thoughts presented if you’re already familiar with labour economics — you could arrive at the same conclusions with some time and thought. If you’re already well-versed in both technology and economics, depending on the expectations you set out for the book, it could be underwhelming.

I somehow fell into the latter category, where I didn’t learn anything new, but I do accept that it was presented to me in a different narrative, which is always good to hear. There’s always something comforting (and ego boosting) when you know the examples already — like going into a classroom and already knowing the materials to be presented in class; you can sit back and be (quietly) confident that you can ace that stuff when put to the test. Ford does have dedicated focus to education and healthcare. We remember our teachers and doctors, for good and bad; let’s call education and healthcare publicly provided personal services. It is both valuable and interesting to explore what technology can do to change these fields and to really ask: overtime, can this labour be replaced by robots? Will governments allow this to happen? Will society accept that this could happen?

The book repeatedly probes us to be more accepting, more tolerant and more willing to say yes to such questions be it for something like home delivery where we can be more understanding that a drone could do it versus something more involved, dexterous and skillful like orthopaedic surgery where even I’d be reluctant to put my life in the hands of a steel monster. I would certainly recommend this book to students of economics — this is a case study of the future of technological impact in labour economics and it’s only going to get more topical going forward.

As an aside, there’s a lot on this year’s FT long-list that I’d like to read. One that stands out in terms of theme is The 100-Year Life — I find it appealing on a lot of levels, be that socio-economic, health or otherwise (I might be in for something entirely different). Much like The Rise of the Robots I imagine that it will provoke readers to reevaluate the future and how they think about it, and of course it has made it into the short-list [at time of writing, the winner is yet to be announced].

Thinking about our attitude to robots, I really enjoyed a talk by Dr Beth Singler at the Geek Girl Conference 2016. Titled “My Computer Hates Me” (which resonates with most Microsoft Surface Pro 4 users who have a docking station — admittedly venting, but I digress…) Dr Singler spoke about how science fiction has led to us, to an extent, forming our beliefs, thoughts and feelings on AI. Some key takeaways from the talk for me were:

  • We should assess our emotions towards AI; are we tending towards deification and demonisation of AI, even anthropomorphism?
  • We cannot have the hubris that humans can’t be replaced creatively
  • Are we building up to living in a society where robots do everything, humans do nothing (think Wall-E here…) and live on a universal basic income and if so, what will a human being be for?

On the wider subject of Geek Girl Conference 2016, which took place in London near St. James’s Park, it touched on a lot of topics under the umbrella “The Way We’re Wired” including robotics, HealthTech for women and genetics, SexTech, big data, wearables, VR and (never in quite the patronising, PC-to-the-point-of-being-meaningless way that HR at your workplace do it) embracing diversity.

The other thing that I love about conferences beyond learning from the speakers is the interaction with other attendees. In fact, I’ve got a couple of book recommendations from them, which I can’t wait to get reading such as this. Conferences are also part of my work as a growth equity investor — it’s important to stay in touch with what’s going on in the world.

The other read that I’ll mention now is more relevant to my work. I came across the title as it was on the HBS MBA reading list for 2016, as well as some other B-schools that take the case-study approach to education. Scaling Up Excellence by Huggy Rao and Robert I Sutton is a must-read for those looking at venture or growth equity investments, working for a company that needs to pivot/scale-up and those with an interest in business education.

I have a paperback copy and I’m not going to let people borrow it

I’ll confess now that I don’t have any plans to do an MBA — I have a masters degree from a European business school and I love learning on the job. I don’t claim that MBA degrees aren’t valuable — they are a great resource, network and I do buy into the case-study approach. I still love looking at what an MBA syllabus involves and more specifically, what the case study approach involves and for this reason I picked up this book.

It didn’t disappoint. In fact, I’ve missed two tube stops on two different days because I got quite sucked in. I don’t want to go into details about the types of case studies covered in the book, but I do want to impress the fact that I felt like I have taken away a lot from this book and I also envisage repeat value in tapping into it now and again to get inspiration on scale-ups. It’ll get a good spot in the business bookshelf, I assure you (which, right now, is a bit in my head as I seem to live in a few different places).

Other than the books that I’ve mentioned already that are in the pipeline for me, I have two other themes of reading going on. Being of Indian heritage, as often happens when you’re from somewhere, I have never done proper tourism of India (just like I haven’t been on the London Eye). I’m beginning to do this in December and to accompany it, I would like to read more on the history of India. Thankfully, I have access to my mother’s shelf which is rich in reading material. I’m currently stuck into the first edition of this. Any other recommendations for this genre are most welcome.

The second theme might be a bit weird but I’ll sound it out. My undergraduate degree was in maths. I love maths, but I’m not so good with institutionalised education and I don’t enjoy it — learning alone (still using open source materials) and by exploration (or indeed by play through the Montessori method) suits me far better. I’m planning on re-reading some of my university texts and maths books. They will be a slow and technical read, I’m sure the plasticity of my brain is not what it was at its best and goodness knows I can’t do any fancy calculus in my current form! I’ll let you know how it goes.

London-born Gujarati. Interested in books, strategy games, business, tech, food & culture.

London-born Gujarati. Interested in books, strategy games, business, tech, food & culture.