I'm In With the Linked-In Crowd

The $26bn acquisition of Linked-In by Microsoft last week is a bit of a digital Rorschach test. To some folks I’ve talked to it’s a visionary master stroke that opens up all sorts of new possibilities in “social selling” and cements the role of email in an increasingly Slacky world. To others, for whom Linked-In is still something of a mystery, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. And then to some it’s a colossal waste of money. $26bn! For what? A web-site where people put their resume and scratch your back in the hope that you’ll scratch theirs! Man, the sell-side bankers did an outstanding job!!! $26bn for a company on the brink of implosion! http://nyti.ms/25Uawxk. Take a bow, Frank Quattrone.

Personally, I see in the ink-splatter all sorts of upside for Microsoft. Consider this;

Linked-In is the de-facto corporate directory for business nowadays; talking to someone on the phone you don’t know? You’re probably looking at their Linked-In profile as you chat. Even if it’s someone in your own company. Listening to someone talk at a conference? You’re probably checking them out on Linked-In (and Twitter) as they blabber on. Before you head back to SI.com.

  • Linked-In is becoming the de-facto thought leadership platform; why have your own website or blog nowadays? Go where the fish are and put your stuff up on Linked-In. Hey, look! You’re reading this on Linked-In!!!
  • Linked-in is the de-facto way of connecting with people you don’t know but would like to know; sure, you probably still meet folks at the golf club or the Rotary or the gym or the resort bar or the Opera but if you want to get connected with someone nowadays a direct call seems hopelessly crude and old-fashioned. And nobody answers their phone anyway if you call them.
  • Not having a presence on Linked-In marks you out as an eccentric or a dinosaur. Even if you’re not in the market for a new gig, don’t want to buy anything, or don’t want to sell something. And if you’re not in any one of those three categories then what are you doing at work all day?

In short, Linked-In is close to becoming a utility in the 21st century digital economy. When you’ve got $100bn parked in banks around the world collecting 0.5% interest spending some of it (even a quarter of it) to buy your way into the next form of business infrastructure seems Bellicheckian (i.e. a good play). (BTW: if you still don’t care for the deal, tell me, what would you do with all that money???!!!)

And in reality the $26bn isn’t buying today’s Linked-In; it’s buying what Linked-In will become. Three years ago, I wrote this piece outlining how HR processes would look in a world of Code Halos. http://bit.ly/1Myr2VR. Far be it from me to tell you “I told you so”, but I told you so.

Fast forward to mid-2016 and this is how HR, and selling, and working with other people is beginning to change and shift into an always-on, mobile, social, intelligent network based experience. Fast forward to 2020 and this type of experience will be ubiquitous and unremarkable.

Of course for Microsoft the ability to migrate the best elements of Office (no sniggering at the back of the room please) into this, not particularly brave, new world gives the Office franchise a post desktop future and sends a shot across lots of bows; the aforementioned Slack, the new BFFs at Salesforce.com, and the folks down south with a Mountain View. Microsoft will integrate the tools we use to work with the utility we use to connect and collaborate, throw AI based analytics, recommendation engines and best next action platforms into the mix, stir in a little advertising, light the blue touch paper, stand back, and hope the resulting explosion produces commercial propulsion, not reputational disaster.

$26bn to have a shot at being relevant to people who’ve never ever heard of Clippy? http://theatln.tc/1GHTL90. Like.

Like also because it prompted me to go and play this again http://bit.ly/1Fye23P. Really Like.

In a world of weak ties, not club ties, Linked-In is increasingly how the world works. Expect your Microsoft rep to start talking about social graphs and digital assistants and just in time social learning before the quarter’s out.

$26bn? Ok, hardly chump change. But not a chump move.

Fahrenheit A.I.

There’s something about fire. Crackling, feeding, inviting, meditative, consuming, unpredictable, destructive. We need it, we love it -- but it can harm.

I recently wondered whether accelerating innovations in artificial intelligence could be as game-changing as the discovery of fire by Homo erectus. There is no question that fire catalyzed the development of early humans. But there were massive risks too; and many likely burned, maimed, harmed or otherwise killed resources, friends, families, enemies – or themselves – in the process of figuring it out. But ultimately – fire allowed great leaps forward.

Yet one of the overarching storylines we hear in the media around artificial intelligence is: “What happens if it gets out of control and kills us all?” Elon Musk talks of “summoning the demon” of artificial intelligence, “our biggest existential threat.” Extraordinary theoretical thinkers like Stephen Hawking warn that automation and artificial intelligence could potentially be “the worst mistake in history.”

One can imagine (literally) less-brainy folk than Hawking and Musk 125,000 years ago wringing their hands over the innovative members of the tribe, the pyromaniacs among them: “Don’t touch that! It’ll kill us all! It’s already burned half of the savannah and all the animals in it! It came from a thunderbolt IN THE SKY!”

Fast-forward to modern times and consider little and big examples of “fire gone out of control moments”:

  • THE ACCIDENTAL: A kid playing with matches
  • THE DELIBERATE: Wild-eyed, crazy arsonist
  • THE METEOROLOGICAL: Thor and his thunderbolts, touching off wildfires
  • THE SEISMIC: San Francisco 1906, burning to the ground
  • THE BELLICOSE: Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, the World Trade Center...

But the march of human progress always entails some risk. Without it, we don’t evolve. And how do you “de-risk” AI? Well, how did we – humans – de-risk fire?

There’s an obvious answer staring us right in the face, in every community, whether it’s big, small, or in-between, that helps us all “not wring our hands” over fire and sleep safely at night.

Your local fire department.

Yes, that good, old-fashioned-with-new-equipment bastion of bell-ringing, helmet wearing, siren-blasting, axe-wielding, oxygen-mask wearing, pole-sliding heroes that you probably don’t think too much about in the day-to-day, but that gets the biggest cheer from the community at the Fourth of July Parade.

Think about it: most of the time, today’s firefighters stand guard, at the ready, but the actual time they spend battling blazes is rather small. Yet there they are, and society sleeps soundly knowing they are there, waiting for the alarm. One need only look at your tax bill to understand – even decades of predictive, preventative measures like sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, GFCI breakers, and the unfortunate tightening noose of fireplace no-burn days – it’s the price we all pay to ensure they’re “on the wall” when all other safety measures fail.

A New Role: Digital First-Responders in the Future of Work

The advent of modern firefighting may be instructive to today’s digital shiftpoint. It was when humanity started to get really “civilized”, industrial and mechanized that the fire department as we know it became a key fixture in every town, village, city, and state. While there were some rudimentary efforts in ancient Rome, It started in France in the early 18th century, and was catalyzed later by Napoleon, who originated "professional" firefighters, known as Sapeurs-Pompiers culled from the French Army. Across the channel, London suffered great fires in 798, 982, 989, 1212 and above all the Great Fire of London in 1666 – which finally, ahem “lit a fire under” the City Council to craft the first fire insurance company.

So that’s why I’m calling for the creation of a new profession in the Future of Work: FAIrefighters. Or, perhaps to coin a less-clunky term, let’s call them “Bot Busters”. Who you gonna call...?

I Ain’t Afraid of No `Bot

Imagine this: FAIrefighters (or Bot Busters) could be something like your friendly neighborhood fire department; brigades of technological specialist teams -- first responders, if you will – ready at a moment’s notice to sweep down virtual Internet poles, erect network ladders, and hack through roofs in the Cloud and douse scary situations where misbehaving AI starts to veer into the direction of unintended consequences.

Our modern fire brigades (and how to pay for them) offer a template: FAIrefighters/Bot Busters could be organized by successively higher orders of classification within the community, local or state/national governments to deal with the physical, as well as virtual, perils of misbehaving AI, and could be something all of society pays for (just like today for firefighters, you’ll find them as a line-item on your property-tax bill).

FAIrefighters could run the gamut from everyday generalists to crack teams of highly compensated, highly trained, highly skilled set of “first responders” should trouble strike. From a small flare-up in the connected home (connected fridge over-spilling with too much milk?), or a glitch in a self-driving car, the FAIrefighters are there. A rogue platoon of micro-bots that’s taking care of nuisance rodents (without pesticides) suddenly going amok and massing around the baby’s crib? Call the FAIrefighters with neutralizing code, algorithms and magnetized traps to rein in the mayhem. They know how to handle it. To quote Bill Murray’s Ghostbusters character Dr. Peter Venkman: “We came, we saw, we kicked its [rump]...”

That’s the “easy” stuff.

Just like for real five-alarm emergencies, you could imagine small strike teams might have to burgeon to coordinate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other forces – technological or physical – much like fighting a massive “real” fire takes today. You see them every time a major wildfire in California blows up: tanker planes, bombers, elite paratroops (smoke jumpers), armies of back-country ground troops (often convict teams from prisons, and the real unsung heroes that scale forces to keep things under control) to get the upper hand.

A future grid meltdown in 30 years causes Friday afternoon LA driverless cars to logjam into levels of crazy not seen since 2016? Imagine that a five-alarm LAF(AI)D city-wide response is there for remediation, rescue and back-up restoration.

Lessons Learned from Our Bravest

Let’s put even our most fantastical worries about AI in some perspective. A good friend of mine is a Battalion Chief for the Oakland Fire Department. I heard him give a talk about the catastrophic 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite, the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which burned from August to October, and cost $127 million to put out.

At one point the heat was so intense, it blew up a massive pyro-cumulus cloud into the stratosphere. The moisture in the cloud at that altitude resulted in a crystalline ice-cap that could no longer hold its weight, which came plummeting back to earth, creating a hurricane force wind, effectively turning the Tuolumne River canyon into a blast furnace the size of a small mountain range. And honestly, looking at this photo, the scale of destruction is almost as if several hydrogen bombs (minus the fallout) detonated over the top of the forest. Honestly, does the spectre of AI-gone-wild even compare?

My friend was also a veteran of the catastrophic 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 and burned nearly 3,000 homes. And his lesson learned is that sometimes they can’t stop it, but they are THERE to control the damage. In the case of Oakland (like San Francisco in 1906 and London in 1666), they rebuilt. In the case of Yosemite, it will be a couple hundred years (my great-great-great-great grandchildren) to see that forest as I had prior to 2013.

In an era where AI – like fire – has all the potential to make society better in all the right ways (healthier, smarter, more connected, empathic, etc.), it just makes plain sense to look at this through a Future of Work lens; that any problems are confronted just as we’ve always done -- as a civic endeavor. The first fire departments happened because of modernization of things like insurance, coupled with advances in military organization. Yes they were crude, and probably very ineffectual against the biggest of disasters (much like the combined might of all of Cal Fire was against the Rim Fire). But that doesn’t make the preparedness, readiness, and heroism inherent in the profession any less admirable (think of the pictures of firefighters going up the World Trade Center stairs in 2001, or those heading into the Fukushima Daiichi reactor core). Even though the circumstances were horrible, that’s something everyone in society can agree on as “a good thing”.

Just like the fire brigades of old, we can expect tomorrow’s FAIrefighters (yes, let’s call them that – less goofy than Bot Busters) to grow in number, to get better, and feature full-time, volunteer, part time, small scale, large scale, and situational professionals ready at a moment’s notice to “respond to the call”. Come 2100, we may deservedly call our FAIrefighters a pillar of our community – they’re always there for us, bot battlin’, code hacking, AI stiflin’ corps that we’ll be proud to call our finest.

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Seven Jobs of the Future

One of the most frequent questions I get on my travels is “what should my kids study and/or do early in their career to give them the best shot at getting a great job that will sustain them throughout their life”?

Clearly this thought comes from a place of anxiety; understandable and appropriate anxiety. Anybody paying attention to the development of artificial intelligence, automation, and bot-based arbitrage knows that the functional capability of machine learning is growing exponentially, and that when the “bot cost” is cheaper than the “bod cost” (assuming the quality of the task execution is broadly comparable) many “bods” are going to be deemed surplus to requirements.

If you’re thinking about the future through the eyes of your children (as I am) trying to steer your kids into areas where they won’t be surplus to requirements is Parenting 101.

So here are seven emerging areas/jobs that are set to grow massively over the next few years and provide incredible opportunity for those with a science oran arts disposition. Remember the FLOWER is as importantmore importantthan the STEM.

Egaming – the egaming industry, still considered a curio by non-gamers, is set to be a $100bn market in the next few years, but is still in reality in its infancy. I’d say it’s where the movie industry was in 1935 or the music business was in 1960. Though you may feel that the hours Johnny’s spent shooting things up on Call of Duty have been a complete waste of time, I’d disagree. I think Johnny’s been learning the reflexes, language, social norms, and aesthetics of the new world. Taking those skills, that DNA, and commercializing them will serve him well. Maybe he’ll be the Colonel Tom Parker of egames; maybe he’ll be the Elvis. Maybe he’ll simply be the manager of the concessions stand at the local superdome when the egaming world championships come to town. Whatever, egaming is big and just getting bigger.

Show production–somewhat related but with lots of different applications, the whole concept of “show production” is quietly booming and set to explode even more. If, like me, you spend a lot of time on the road going to trade shows and conferences and industry events, you’ll have noticed that the “production values” of these events have increased very noticeably in the last few years. Whereas you used to find a jerry-rigged stage, a black curtain, and a slightly askew projection screen as the backdrop for the latest product launch or pronouncement from the CEO, now you have 300 foot, 180 degree wrap around HD screens, Hollywood quality videos, lighting and audio rigs from a Beyonce concert, and the vibe of a Vegas show. In short, the production values of movies and TV are finding their way into the day to day of business. Given the pervasiveness of the screen in our times, not being as glossy and polished as the presenters on CNN or Entertainment Tonight leaves the big wigs looking like Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain, i.e. a relic from a previous age. There are tons of roles – technical, artistic, commercial – in democratizing this trend. There’s going to be lots of businesses that want show business.

IoT infrastructure– again, somewhat related, but something with much broader application, is the rise of the Internet of Things. Let’s assume that everything will – within a few years – be a thing. Building these things, deploying them, managing them, integrating them, upgrading them, optimizing them, fixing them is the huge wave ahead of us. The egaming world championships with its incredible production values – held in your town – is going to exist within an IoT environment; the stadium will be smart, the ticketing and entrance will be smart, the concessions will be smart, the live and virtual experiences will be smart, the ride to and from the stadium will be smart, the build-up and follow-up of the 3 hour game will be smart. Everything will be smart. Replicate this scenario out into every aspect of life and the possibilities are endless. Getting in on the ground floor would be smart.

Digital munitions– given that we’re so fractious a bunch (you are watching Euro 2016 aren’t you?!) I’d say it’s a pretty good bet that we’re going to have a big punch up soon. Left versus right, color v color, religion v religion, north v south, whatever, war runs through the history of man like the word Brighton in a stick of Brighton rock. The next big war though won’t be fought on the fields of northern Belgium- or the playing fields of Eton –but in the data centers of Sunnyvale and Canary Wharf and the Datong Road, Shanghai. The weapons of this war won’t be a Gribeauvai or a Sig Sauer MCX or an ICBM but a piece of code written in C++ delivered through a piece of glass running under the sea or through the ionosphere. If you don’t like the idea of working in the military, fine, call it homeland defense. In the future the idea of attacking or defending, home or abroad, will be quaint notions found only in the manuscripts of Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz. War will be total. War will be everywhere. War will be invisible. The business of dying (unfortunate as it may be) is set to be a growth industry.

Space– check out the job openings page at Blue Origin. Enough said. Put another way, follow the enthusiasms of the newest billionaire class a.k.a. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Their investments are your opportunity. These guys are the kings of the new frontier, underwriting the new Cristobal Colon’s of the new, new world. It’s going to be hell of a ride and you might die but if I was 21 that’s what I’d be doing. Space is big, and according to Einstein, only getting bigger.

Story telling – the oldest profession (well, not theoldest, but we won’t go there) is becoming the newest skill. Why? Thank TED. The 18 minutes Chris Anderson gives you forces you to tell a story as though you’re back in the cave or out on the high veldt or in the coffee shop on Fleet Street. TED has raised the bar for every type of corporate communication. In a world of ADD, and multi-tasking and second and third and fourth screens, and everybody communicating every second of every day through every channel and every form factor, being able to cut through the noise with a good story is fundamental. The truth is though, very few people can tell a good story. If you can’t add, and you can’t code, I reckon you should double down on learning the art of the yarn. The techies will thank you for it and might let you have some crumbs from their table.

Finishing schools–assuming that in a bot-full-future DNA-life-based-forms (that’s you and me mate) want to deal with other DNA-life-based-forms, I’d say giving “good meeting” is going to be a pretty important job requirement in the second machine age. The Lex Machinabot https://lexmachina.com/ is probably going to do all the work when you go to see your $1,000 an hour lawyer so it will be important that the DNA based lawyer makes the meeting valuable, interesting, exciting, fun, and enjoyable. In the last few decades of HBR/McKinsey/Goldman Sachs orthodoxy these “soft” skills have gone out of the window in an environment of efficiency and ruthlessness. The three martini business lunch has mutated into the sandwich “al-desko”. The 19th hole doesn’t see the action it used to. Professional people’s interpersonal skills are – in my observation – much coarser and much poorer than they were when I started my working life. I think this is going to change and that “bed-side manners” are going to be important again. If you buy this argument there’s an opportunity to develop the curricula and infrastructure to teach professional people how to treat the staff (i.e. the bots) and the guests. Schools hardly do this nowadays; nor colleges, nor graduate level entry programs, nor professional associations. Sales training programs cover some of it, but as a thin veneer to help sales people close the transaction. To me the broader opportunity is to teach people to differentiate themselves from machines. Of course, this isn’t something bourgeois people have had to worry about ever before. But now they do. Not many people will be able to go to Montreuxto stay ahead of the bot; helping the folks around you do so is set to be an expanding niche; one that will probably get you onto quite a few Christmas card lists. That is if cards exist in the future.

The questions that parents (and non-parents) are asking are big ones; important ones; the right ones. In 1,500 words – or a few minutes response at the end of a presentation – it’s hard to do them justice. All of these seven areas are big and broad and deep and all could stand much deeper investigation. I’m not attempting to replicate or condense all of the literature that already exists about them. Something big is going on right now, due to the software nibbling away at the world. We all subsequently need to ask big questions. My answers may be puny but I hope they might be seeds that with your watering and TLC may flower – beautifully – for you and yours in the seasons to come