Life without the iPhone, I don’t think so. Platforms like Google, Apple Twitter and Facebook have revolutionised how we live and most of us love our technological devices and their benefits.
Massive profits from our investments help Tech giants increase their capability at lightning speed. One tech giant makes a billion dollars a month in profit alone! This success enables them to invest in more technological advances like artificial intelligence (AI).
It’s been exciting times. Yet our preoccupation with “what is”, has limited our ability to anticipate and manage the unintended technological consequences of “what may be”.
Could we have ever imagined our employment fate could be decided by a push of a button, by a potential employer looking at our social media pages, with not one word uttered?
Our world is becoming increasingly complex; businesses and governments can barely react to the technological changes – let alone consider consequences and be proactive.
As a society, however, we cannot use this as an excuse. It is more important than ever Tech companies, individuals, businesses and governments run this race together, pushing each to do their best to deliver benefits for everyone.
Let me explain why by using an analogy of “a race”
Let’s use the ride-sharing giant, Uber as an example.
It is a packed stadium with many onlookers, a race is underway with four runners.
Lane one is in the lead. Representing technology companies who are setting a fast pace. In front is, Uber, thumbing their nose and so far, winning the race.
The next lane is the individual – a representative of you and me. We race to catch up, and quickly adapt to the ride sharing service. In fact, the number of Uber drivers has already reached 72,000 in Australia.
The third lane is business, slower again. The taxi business hit hard by Uber technology; taken by surprise by the first and second runners and are scrambling to adjust.
In last place is the government who must reconsider how the whole legislative system works with taxi plates, safety and taxation. A difficult challenge particularly when they are already at the back of the pack.
The good news is some governments around the world, are taking different approaches to the race. Some are more strategic than others exploring different options, investing resources, determined to maintain the powerful role of government.
How does the analogy of “the race” apply to discrimination?
The 1991 Antidiscrimination Act says we are unable to discriminate across 14 categories, including gender, race age or parental responsibilities.
Look at the potential impact of photo and facial recognition technology.
In first place. Tech companies revolutionise facial recognition programs. This is now a 3-billion-dollar market in the US alone with an error rate of only .8%
Second place – individuals, at least for now. We take photos and put them on all over social media platforms. Freely agreeing access from biotechnologies, pacing ourselves with lane one.
Running third is business. They may see the benefits of accessing employee photos on social media or participating in facial recognition technology. Starting to sprint, they may not see the hurdles discrimination puts in front of them.
In fourth place, again is the legislative process. What type of anti-discrimination legislation is now required to manage the impact of photos and facial recognition?
There are now so many grey areas to contemplate. What happens if a rejected employee claims discrimination based on their belief the employer accessed their social media pages and made judgements about them, particularly when they asked to do so?
Combine this with more technological obstacles and legislation may fall further behind. Consider the impact of an app called FIND FACE which takes a photo of someone and uses it to find their social media account and algorithms which filter job applications for specific aspects, for example, ethnicity and signs of intelligence and sexuality.
What can each runner do to provide the best outcome for themselves and society which the crowd represents?
The best race is one where the field is tight with each runner at their peak. It helps to bring out the best performances and provides the most engagement from the crowds.
Technology is moving fast; it will not slow down. However, technology companies need to invest more of their resources in understanding the unintended consequences of the failures in the other lanes. There may be no race to run if there are no competitors nor any crowds to buy the tickets.
As responsible citizens, it is up to us to put pressure on the other lanes to perform and challenge themselves. We must keep informed, engage in the public debates and reduce obstacles within our control. This may involve managing social media posts which could negatively impact on future job opportunities.
Businesses must invest in keeping fit, invest in resources to educate themselves, generate relevant policies, and anticipate obstacles. They must up their game to tighten the race.
Lane one is driving immense social and economic change and it’s time for governments to proactively help shape that future as fast as they can. To do this they must be well informed, engage in relevant strategies and provide superior resources enabling them to be fit for their role in the race.
As Elon Musk a leader of Lane one said:
“Governments must be proactive, not reactive on the regulation of AI. By the time we are reactive in AI. It will be too late.”
If this happens the metaphorical race will be over. The runner’s choice.
Algorithms and machine learning are often applying the same bias and prejudices that humans show, however many people are failing to notice as their attention is elsewhere.
Today’s priority can become yesterday’s issue with simply a new line of code. By the time people notice, the game may be over. Even if someone wanted to correct the system, biases may become so buried they are almost invisible and hard to detect.
An example of this is many organisations spend time, money and energy assisting people to recognise unconscious bias in the workplace through webinars and workshops. This is almost a yesterday’s solution when algorithms are making employment decisions written by predominately young male developers. It is this group, which may not even be employed directly by the company that can transfer their unconscious biases to the algorithm. This is today’s reality.
A sentencing algorithm created in America highlights this. It predicted which people would re-offend after an initial crime. The algorithm falsely said black offenders would offend twice as often as white offenders. The people who were creating the algorithm was predominately white males.
Developers may also be directed to create algorithms that meet specific company requirements which may be biased. If this practice exists, algorithms may be considered trade secrets and are not required to be divulged.
In California, a person was jailed for life based on a piece of software that relied on DNA traces from a crime scene. When the defence asked to see the source code of the algorithm it was denied because it was called a trade secret.
If anyone was convicted of a crime by the information provided by an algorithm, wouldn’t it be their human right to know how the decision was made? Apparently not yet.
Organisations must take notice of the emerging issues with the use of algorithms. Where possible, the methodology used must be visible and transparent. What is the alternative?
Although algorithms are becoming more sophisticated they are not the Holy Grail. Many capable people will simply not fit the algorithm irrespective of bias. Though underestimating the speed at which algorithms are evolving would not be wise. It is espoused that they can detect gender and race by scanning a resume with an 88% accuracy.
In Australia, today it is not possible for an applicant to challenge an algorithm’s decision about the suitability of their application. The process prevents this. The applicant submits their CV online, they subsequently receive an anonymous computer generated an acknowledgement.
If unsuccessful they get another computer-generated response giving no real reason. The whole process is invisible to the applicant and leaves only the applicant’s imagination to understand why.
Even without intent, if the process itself not managed properly may entrench a range of inequalities as previous examples demonstrate. This is very thing many institutions have spent years trying to avoid.
It is easy to imagine that an algorithm may be coded to a specific group. Like an expert from a specific school or country within a certain age bracket. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, particularly if it is a trade secret and there are no rights of appeal.
This scenario helps breed inequality and if history has taught us anything, inequality sews the seeds of societal discontent, often with catastrophic consequences.
As priority decisions made by algorithms must become more visible for both practical and ethical reasons. Imagine if technology could tell the applicant applying for the job, why they did not get it, how the decision was made, and what they could do to increase their opportunities. The impact could be positive for the company’s brand and its ethical approach may help attract talent to their business.
Countries like Germany have created guidelines which provide algorithm visibility. They state that “if an accident is unavoidable the self-driving car must not make any choices over who to save. No decisions should be made on age, sex, race, disabilities, and so on; all human lives matter”.
Statesmen like cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have endorsed a set of principles that reinforce the importance of transparency to ensure that self-thinking machines remain safe and act in humanity’s best interests.
Not every leader has the knowledge available to them that some countries or technologists do. However, today’s leaders have a responsibility to be informed and have enough knowledge to ask the probing and ethical questions. Otherwise, they will be implementing yesterday’s solutions.
The relationship with technology and bias is only one of the complex ethical issues that are facing society today. It becomes even more complex if the system is invisible to the people using it or being affected by it. The power cannot lie solely with the algorithm. Today’s mantra must be algorithm transparency.
“What lies between most people and destitution is their job”
Satyajit Das Financial Commentator
Most working Australians families including the tax office have relied on regular salaried incomes. This however is unlikely to be the primary employment model in the future. Instead many workers will be “off balance” sheet. They will be self-employed, contract labour or outsourced.
The future of work is more about flexibility and reducing costs. It has been turbo charged by technology and globalisation. There is no going back.
In Australia, there is already a significant reduction in full time employment and increasing trends towards flexible employment options. This is already resulting in Underemployment one of Australian’s most growing workforce concerns.
Have you heard of “dollar ready”? I recently engaged in a conversation with a business person and he said that their organisation was not employing people who were not “dollar ready”. They would employ skilled people from overseas rather than employ juniors or graduates, because they did not provide the dollars on day one. In other words, “dollar ready”.
This attitude is not shared by all but it is powerful language that makes you sit up and take notice. Complacency is not an option considering current trends.
- Youth unemployment is 13.3% and one in five are underemployed. Competition for jobs is intense.
- Graduate employment is the lowest it’s been since the 1992-93 recession.
- Apprenticeship numbers have declined since 2010.
Have you heard of the term being “dollar ready”? I recently engaged in a conversation with a business person and he said that their organisation was not employing people who were not “dollar ready”. They would employ skilled people from overseas rather than employ juniors or graduates, because they did not provide the dollars on day one.
This attitude is not shared by all businesses; however, the term “dollar ready” is evocative language. It does make you sit up and take notice, especially when you are aware of the youth unemployment trends in Australia.
Why is developing confidence in people a strategic advantage for businesses of the future.
The future of work is focused on technology and the importance of people being capable of being innovative and entrepreneurial. According to discussions at Davos in 2017:
For the modern worker, flexible work places have been promoted as the holy grail for work life balance. For many this is correct. Flexible work places have assisted employees arrange their lives in a way that is mutually beneficial for themselves, their families and their employer.
For a growing number of others, this is not correct. People are starting to realise that the consequences and expectations of flexible work arrangements is darkening their lives. The long shadow is primarily accessibility.
We give you flexibility, you give us access to your life.
A type of ill-considered Faustian bargain
I recently went on a short holiday to western Queensland and as a part of my travels I went and visited a lake. I remember it was a glorious winter’s day and as I was wandering along the shoreline, I, by chance, had a conversation with a middle age local woman; let’s say her name was Jane. We exchanged the normal pleasantries, and as a part of our exchange we discussed a lot about her work. Like many conversations between strangers, anonymity provided the basis for an honest conversation. Almost like reverse road rage in some ways. This brief connection provided more insight into an average Australian’s view of work than any employee survey could provide. Let me explain by sharing the conversation and unpacking some of those insights.
Jane, I discovered, worked for a supermarket chain and had done so for 27 years as a full time employee. She was one of the few remaining “full timers” as almost all new employees were predominately employed on casual or part time hours. She reflected that in the beginning everyone was employed on a permanent basis, managers stayed in their positions and she described it like working together as a family. Everyone used to help each other out. If one person’s department was running late or customers were lined up at the check out, every one would pitch in to help each other.
I have spent hours writing an article on employee engagement and at the end of it I realised that Employee Engagement is passing its use by date. The world of work is changing dramatically. There should be no expectations by employers that employees will be so absorbed by their work, that they will use discretionary effort for the benefit of the company. Those days are going, if not gone.
When I was researching the area, I was looking for information that supported investing in employee engagement. What became apparent to me was with the advent of redundancies, restructures, and endless cost cutting measures, trust has been predominately lost between the employee and employer, with little chance of reconciliation.
Irrespective of this there was no “evidence” that employee engagement leads to better company performance. There are only studies that show a correlation. Some research suggests that the best performers in companies are actually those who are less engaged, suggesting at least that the construct is wrong.
Yet interestingly 78% of business leaders believe engagement is an urgent or important issue. They spend huge amounts of money identifying how engaged people are. What they seemingly fail to recognise is that employees are so sceptical or fearful of the confidentiality of such surveys; much of the information gathered within companies is potentially flawed.
A consequence of a secret fear of failure.
Achilles Heel Syndrome (AHS) is a consequence of a secret fear of failure and due to modern day circumstances I believe it is becoming more prevalent.
AHS, although it is not a new concept, I don’t believe it is well understood. My aim therefore is to explain the concept, understand why it is becoming more prevalent and explore actions that organisations can take to reduce the incidence of AHS.
What is Achilles Heel Syndrome? (AHS)
I first discovered AHS when reading Petruska Clarkson’s book Achilles Heel Syndrome. The term Achilles’ heel is used when referring to one’s vulnerability and it is spawned from Greek Mythology.