17 minutes reading time (3305 words)

Pandora’s box, algorithms and the future of work and jobs.

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In Greek myth, Pandora’s box was a divine gift, which on opening released strife, care, pride, hatred and despair into the world. The last thing remaining inside the box was hope.

Pandora was created to be curious and the urge to open the box overcame her. Zeus knew that her curiosity meant that she could not stop herself from opening the box, especially when he had told her that she must not do so.

Our curiosity has brought us to where we are today, with a wide range of tools at our fingertips, in the midst of a digital revolution, which connects us all.

As always, threat and opportunity stand side by side before us. Yet with hope and wisdom helping us to manage our choices, we have never had more opportunity to deal with the strife, care, pride, hatred and despair of the world.

But the opportunities come with challenges.

By working together, the challenges can be managed if we are able to move forward from the attitudes of the 20th Century world of conflict, separation and disconnection into a joined up, shared value and collaborative world.

And that competition between old world thinking and new world opportunity is being played out every day, in forums and meeting places across the planet.

The technologies of communication, connection and collaboration continue to join up individuals, companies, regions and countries across the planet, pushing us in one direction only – towards association and fellowship.

And the technologies also magnify the “power of one”, offering all individuals the additional power of “shared value” and collaboration.

If you are not familiar with shared value, watch Michael Porter, Harvard Business School - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jesEa_-Pgp8

Professor Porter has been promoting the concept of shared value since 2011, and the lights are finally going on.

What role should business have in society? In a joined up world, business can no longer just do its old thing. It has to do a new thing. It has to accept, contribute to and reinforce its position in support of every community and connected region, state, country and society.

To help fix and improve things. To find better ways to do things. To differentiate itself from other businesses. To create and deliver strategy. And to make profit.

We can transform separation into collaboration, and selfishness into sharing. The digital revolution is joining everything up. We just need to align our minds and our actions with the new opportunity. Which will take time.

But every day, there is more connection, collaboration and integration of devices and networks, and ultimately the human beings that use them.


From a personal perspective, we are all the result of an algorithm – DNA, the organising principle that transforms spacedust (elements) into a living organism at the beginning of every individual human life and back into dust again at the end.

An algorithm is simply a set of rules that defines a sequence of operations. In a computer system, it is the logic written by software developers to produce an output from a given input.

All of our algorithms are created with intention (whatever that might be), and they are becoming increasingly useful in the digital revolution as the cost of storage decreases, the speed of processing increases and more and more devices across the planet are connected in multiple ways.

We have been “human” for about 200,000 years, a relatively short period in the 3.8 billion year history of life on the Earth.

Which itself, is about a third of the time since the Big Bang, which gave rise to the universe 13.8 billion years ago and created all the spacedust that ultimately led to me, you and the rest of us, through the mechanism of DNA, an algorithm which originated as a replication mechanism sometime late in early life history.

A long time ago. The sophistication and elegance of DNA is apparent. It is mapped, decoded and studied in laboratories across the world. We have a personal interest in DNA.

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Because one end result of all that evolutionary trialing and testing of different options was homo sapiens - humankind with our special range of capacities – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – that make us different from the rest of life on the planet. Which has all been programmed through multiple variations of DNA replication to give us the amazing world we live in.

And here we sit, in 2018 with a growing capacity (through the digital revolution) to use our collective intelligence to do stuff. Including creating increasingly sophisticated algorithms of our own. Not as sophisticated as DNA. But you have to start somewhere.

So what are we doing with our algorithms? What is our creative vision? Mainly profiling, ordering and ranking.

Each year, Google changes its search algorithm about 500 times to rank and order websites in search engine results. Facebook uses its algorithm to prioritise content in News Feeds, based on comments and likes, shares and your profile.

Instagram uses its algorithm to create a feed based on past behaviour. Twitter uses its algorithm to present content based on accounts you interact with and tweets you engage with. And Linkedin uses its algorithm to present content based on likes, views and shares.

All of these platforms use content to attract customers, but they don’t create it themselves. So content creators are encouraged and rewarded with higher rankings, more approvals and relevance to other users. Attractive and relevant content generates more visits and views, which then creates an environment for sales messages of various kinds. The platforms then use the customer profiles generated by the algorithms above, and match them with product and service messages and advertisements. To make money.

But it is not just social media platforms that use algorithms and profiles.

Businesses and organisations of all kinds create profiles and use algorithms to improve customer relationships, and increase the accuracy of leads generation and prediction. About a third of finance tasks in corporates are already done by algorithms and robots, with more to come.

Data sources based on customer profile and history are combined with other datasets to generate a wider view of the customer. And government departments across the world are now doing the same thing as business. In some cases taking this to an extreme.

In China, the “Social Credit” system has been introduced for command and control. Think George Orwell’s novel 1984 and you get the idea.

Worried by the prospect of wider social unrest after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the government was concerned about the country’s future.

Twenty years on, the Chinese government has solved that problem through the use of profiling, facial recognition software, and algorithms standardising an assessment of citizen and business, and generating economic and social reputation or “credit”.

Align this capability with the widespread adoption and use of electronic payment systems for buying goods and services and control becomes absolute. If you can’t accept money, buy or pay for stuff, you are somewhat knackered.

The government can reward or punish according to algorithms. The ability to work, the ability to pay for products and services can all be controlled. And an individual’s rating can be connected to the rating of family, friends and associates, allowing not just individuals but also associates to be blacklisted and denied access to services of all kinds, at the whim of government.

So the power of social disapproval can be brought to bear as well. This would be an impressive scenario in a science fiction story. But this is the real world.

By 2020, or soon after, health, location, insurance, private messages, financial status, payment history, political activity, preferred newspapers, shopping history and dating behaviour will be included within the system.

The Social Credit system will be limited to Mainland China. So they say. We’ll see how long it takes before Hong Kong is included.

Which drags all citizens and businesses in Australia and elsewhere into the world of Geopolitics. It is no longer enough just to know about producing goods and services. We all now need a more refined understanding of the geopolitics of the interconnected, international environment we now operate in.

And this Pandora’s Box of new threat and opportunity is not limited to one country alone.

It will affect all countries in different ways. And organisations of all shapes and sizes have to understand the many dimensions to digital change – both within the business and across all external relationships.

So we need to think more deeply about whom we are engaging with. Which businesses. Which organisations and which countries.

The NSA has been hovering up data from multiple databases and data sources for years. Edward Snowden highlighted some of the activities the American and British spy agencies are involved with, when he became a “whistle blower” in 2013, leaking insights on NSA and GCHQ activities to the world at large.

As a result, we are all now more aware of surveillance and data gathering activities, and even more aware that privacy is a fiction, that cannot be protected. Which depends of course, on whom we are protecting our privacy from.

Treat everything as though it is on a post card and you won’t be surprised.

The Patriot Act and Freedom Act powers are wide ranging and allow the FBI to request information from American citizens anywhere in the world, working for any organisation, and then demand they not let anybody know they provided information, or tell anybody that anything had even happened.

And the USA is one of our friends, a country with similar values to our own. One of the “Five Eyes” countries that share intelligence on a regular basis.

The Social Credit system of course now offers China the same opportunity to demand information from its citizens and diaspora anywhere on the planet, but leveraged in a different way.

The Chinese diaspora of 50 million Chinese is spread across the world, and the Social Credit system provides the leverage to request “help” and “information” from individuals anywhere at any time. “We would like your help with XXX. Help us and your family will be rewarded with credit.” And you can all work out what the opposing proposition might be.

Not saying that this will happen. But once Pandora’s box is open...

And when you consider the growing range of activities engaged in by the Chinese government including terraforming reefs and sandbars, hundreds of miles from home, then it is obvious that we should consider Australia’s future and our business and national relationships carefully.

If we are going to engage more actively with the world, we need to be confident about the nature and objectives of all the countries and businesses we engage with. Legal systems only offer limited protection. What are the values of the organisations and the countries we are engaging with? Do they match our own?

Luckily, at this time we export mainly iron ore, coal, wool, wood, meat, copper, other minerals, food and drink. Not a lot of intellectual property going out the door.

But as we diversify and focus on adding value to our productive industries through research, design and branding, we have to become more careful in all our trade relations, because we are now dealing with countries with a different attitude to property and theft than we have.

Profiling, algorithms, data processing, trade and customer engagement have all evolved. But our legal systems and enforcement haven’t kept pace with the speed of change. So in the absence of reliable international law with enforceable rules and regulations, we need to treat this new environment like the “wild west”. Be cautious and aware, and tread carefully.

For Australia, it would make strategic sense to widen significantly the number of trade partners we engage with and to diversify production across a wider range of products and services. We cannot afford to become captive to trading partners with a very different view of “shared value.”

We need to mitigate risk. Quickly.

Profiling, facial recognition software, and algorithms linked together are a powerful combination. And will become even more powerful as the years progress. Add weaponry to that mix and science fiction becomes a new reality.


That’s the potential downside of where we are heading. The upside is the option of using profiling, algorithms and data processing for positive change.

But we need to learn a lesson from the algorithm of our DNA, and widen our perspective in creating solutions to incorporate more human dimensions to measure success.

Can we call a city a “smart city” if it only offers physical solutions like smart parking, traffic lights, water meters and dog licensing. Maybe “smart” is too boastful a description. Autonomic may be more accurate.

Can we incorporate all human dimensions into the creation of smart cities – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual?

Is a smart city smart if it has homeless people on the streets? Is a smart city smart if it has hundreds of ageing individuals living in isolation, loneliness and desperation? Is a smart city smart if it doesn’t design “common – unity” (community) into its architecture and town planning?

We have to design humancentric cities not infrastructure centric cities.

Put the human being at the centre of a living system and everything changes. Put the human at the centre of an education system and everything changes. Put the human at the centre of a health system and everything changes. Currently, the systems in all cases process human beings like an assembly line. 20th century thinking – conveyor belt, not 21st century thinking – wholism.

Design thinking and human centered solutions shift the thinking. Innovation comes from the grassroots and edges. Without participation at every stage from design to ongoing engagement, there is no smart city.

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Technology now exists to create autonomous weapons that can select and kill

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human targets without supervision. For an idea of what that might mean, watch

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And we have to move beyond “That’s not the job of the council” or “That’s not the job of this department” to a more holistic way of thinking. And inclusion. Because, that is the job of every human being. We are holistic.

We can’t compartmentalise everything. And deal with all issues separately, as though they were not connected in some way. We have to recognise and respond to the interconnected nature of the world we live in and plan accordingly.

Chinese walls are no longer Chinese walls (If they ever were). Conflicts of interest need dealing with not by virtual separation, but by actual separation. Or by collaboration and shared value.

Just like the concept of de-identification of personal data, some ideas no longer have any practical value. Re-identification of personal data is now so easy, due to access to data sources, algorithms and processing power that individuals need to make decisions about their own personal data regardless of promises of privacy.

Treat everything as though it is on a post card and you won’t be surprised.

This raises the issue of who should own personal data anyway, and how management of personal data should be conducted. Blockchain provides a mechanism for decision making to be managed directly by individual citizens, through the creation of an encrypted individual personal identity passport.

In time, individuals can then make decisions about personal data and how it should be used, that will no longer rely on government, banks, insurance and medical companies to act as trust broker. Individuals will be able to manage these relationships through “smart contracts” embedded in blockchain, distributed ledger networks.

Our technology is increasingly interconnected. But we are responsible for creating the software tools and algorithms that we all use. They don’t create themselves.

Is the imagination and vision for the software development and algorithms the best it could be? As visionary as it could be? As creative as it could be?

The limits are ours. What we do with the new tools requires “big, interconnected picture” thinking.

We can define the scope. Telescope – far seeing. Or microscope – small seeing. And then use the data to achieve new things.

According to Roy Morgan, unemployment in August was 11%, with another 8% of the workforce underemployed, whereas the ABS puts it at 5.3%. The ABS deems that if somebody has worked for only one hour a week then they are employed. Which isn’t helpful.

Roy Morgan measures real unemployment in Australia, not the perception of unemployment. But the ABS figures are more politically acceptable. It is as simple as that. All governments manipulate their statistics for the public.

Which may make sense in the short term, but really doesn’t help if we are seriously going to address the problem of jobs.

Currently, digital disruption and its impacts on jobs is viewed a bit like climate change. The impacts are off somewhere in the future. Which is correct. But that future is closer than you might think.

But jobs do not exist in a vacuum.

Employers offer jobs. And employers make people redundant. And big businesses answer to shareholders wanting profit. And small businesses have to pay wages.

And the current myth that employers won’t replace people with technology, but will retain workers and just reallocate tasks is just a wish and a dream. The reality is that technology comes in the door and people go out.

Even in organisations that have more than enough money to redeploy people if they choose to, such as banks – they don’t. The ANZ has cut 5,250 employees. The National Australia Bank has retrenched 6,000 employees.

The big four banks in Australia are expected to shed up to 40,000 jobs in all over five years. Some new jobs in technology and analytics will be created, but overall it’s net job loss. Telstra is cutting 8,000 jobs. Optus is cutting 400. And so on.

So even in companies with big profits, people are not being redeployed they are being unemployed.

This trend will continue.

In the next three to five years we will see the first 1.5 million Australian jobs under threat, in financial services, retail, wholesale, rental and real estate, administration and support. As well as some categories in professional services and health.

And in the next ten to fifteen years, another 4.5 million jobs will be threatened as AI really takes hold. Which for our children and grandchildren in Australian schools is going to be a challenge.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), 3D printing, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things,

Blockchain, Cloud services, BIM, GPS, 5G, Cryptocurrency, Cybersecurity, Drones,

Digital Identity, IP protection, Mobility, Nanotechnology, Robots, Solar and

Battery Storage, Virtual Reality, Amazon, airbnb, Freelancer, Uber etc, not

forgetting climate change and “fake news” all present threats to jobs in Australia

and across the world, as well as opportunity.

So we need to start understanding, managing and pushing back against this threat, before it becomes a promise.

There is a lot we can do, but we have to start with an honest appraisal of the marketplace and workplace environment. Youth unemployment is a problem. Over 40 years old unemployment is a problem. Job transition is a problem.

We have an abundance of productive industries in Australia. An abundance of resources. We have the capacity to reframe what we do and where we focus our efforts. We have a world-class innovation engine in CSIRO/Data61 and our universities.

We can add value to products and services through our research, design, branding and marketing. But we have to start by having a “big picture” vision, joining the pieces of the puzzle. Bringing it all together.

The opportunity is there in front of us. “We are a big country, with a small population and we are ratshit at collaboration.” Only by collaborating and showcasing what we (Australia) can offer to the world will we be successful.

How do I go about ordering a mold from China?


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Monday, 19 August 2019

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