Medical Researchers are Developing a “Smart Insulin Patch”

“Spinning Top”, Image by Creativity103

In an innovative joint project at the University of North Carolina and at North Carolina State University, medical researchers are currently developing a “smart insulin patch” that can both measure blood glucose levels and then administer insulin to regulate it as needed for people with Type 1 diabetes. This is yet another approach at the core of much academic and commercial research and development at creating a “closed loop” system that senses and responds to changes in blood sugar.

Other ongoing research in this field is attempting to integrate continuous glucose sensors with insulin pumps, both of which are available on the market but not yet working together in a viable product with regulatory approval. Both of these approaches are efforts to create a biomedical system that can act as a fully functioning artificial pancreas for people with Type 1 diabetes.

The ongoing work on the smart insulin patch was covered in a fascinating article in the June 22, 2015 edition of The Washington Post entitled The ‘Smart’ Insulin Patch That Might One Day Replace Injections for Diabetic Patients by Brady Dennis. I will summarize, annotate and add a few questions of my own. (Two other recent Subway Fold posts on  October 3, 2014 and June 16, 2015, clickable here and here, respectively, have covered one project to upload glucose monitoring data to the mobile devices of friends and relatives, and another by a medical device manufacturer using social media to reach out to people using insulin pumps.)

This new smart insulin patch is a square shape as small as a penny and is word on the skin. One side of it contains numerous tiny “microneedles” that the face the skin and contain “both insulin and a glucose-sensing enzyme”. Thus, when an increase in blood glucose is detected, the patch can release insulin into the patient’s system “quickly and painlessly”. As a result, the necessity for the delivering insulin by traditional means of a syringe or insulin pump is eliminated.

To date, the development team has only tested the patch on mice. Early test results, published here in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (subscription required), showed that the patch worked on the test animals starting within 30 minutes of its application and then lasting for up to nine hours.

Dr. John Buse, one of the co-authors and the director of the UNC Diabetes Center, finds this “exciting”, but he also believes it will take years to determine if this will work in humans. A very informative and detailed news release with photos of the patch and the microneedles, entitled Smart Insulin Patch Could Replace Painful Injections for Diabetes, has recently posted on the UNC Diabetes Center website.

Using current technology requires people with Type 1 diabetes to check their blood glucose levels a number of times each day and then corresponding regulate their insulin to balance the effects of these up and down readings. Other researchers have endeavored to “closed the loop” between insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors, but these systems still require close attention and adjustments by the patient

The smart insulin patch, if proven safe and viable, could one day dramatically change protocols for the care of Type 1 diabetes. It is an attempt to more directly emulate the human body’s own insulin regulatory system. As well, the microneedles in the patch are designed to be far less invasive and nearly painless than today’s use of injections, pumps and sensors, all of which require larger needles to pierce the skin. It is designed to directly “tap into the blood flowing through the capillaries” in order to become activated.

The researcher team has also found that they could “fine tune the patch” to attain blood glucose levels within an acceptable range. As a result, they are hopeful that, in the future, the patch could be adjusted to each individual patient’s system (including, among other things, weight and insulin sensitivity), and the duration of the patch’s effectiveness could be extended to several days.

My questions are as follows:

  • How exactly will the patch be personalized to meet the biological needs of each user? How will patients manage and regulate this from patch to patch? Is the goal to calibrate a single patch for the user or a series of patches as the user’s needs and environment changes?
  • Can the patches be customized and fabricated using today’s commercial 3D printing technology?
  • Will blood glucose levels still need to be checked regularly using current methods in order to assess and align the patch’s effectiveness and accuracy?
  • Can the patch’s data on blood glucose levels and insulin dosages be uploaded onto mobile devices in order to be monitored by the patient’s health professionals and family members?
  • Might the patch be used in conjunction with or even integrated into the Apple Watch as a medical app?
  • Can other medications that a person with diabetes is taking also be administered, monitored and regulated with the patch, perhaps making it even “smarter”?

Human Resources Management Meets Big Data in Devising Systems to Identify Star Employees

"2009 Leonid Meteor", Image by Ed Sweeney

“2009 Leonid Meteor”, Image by Ed Sweeney

Have you ever seen a clearly talented colleague at your workplace who was not fully recognized for his or her potential?

Today there is a raft of sophisticated data-driven software products being marketed to Human Resources departments (HR) to assist companies in finding possible star employees. However, some of these systems are not living up to their own, well, potential. Employers are still struggling to identify people on their staffs who have might be likely to excel in their future career paths.

This modern workplace quandary was the subject of a very interesting and informative feature in the June 17, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Are Companies Any Good at Picking Stars?, by Rachel Feintzeig.  I will sum up some of the main points, annotate, and ask some additional questions.

Businesses today have a wealth of data about their employees’ performances and productivity. Nonetheless, identifying who among them have the greatest potential to assume leadership roles in the future is still “more art than science”.  Assessments by humans as well as software algorithms are both still lacking in some respects.

As a result, companies including Nokia, American Express and SAP are turning to new means to measure employee potential. These include new forms of metrics and classifications, as well as games to identify leadership characteristics.

No firm has yet constructed a truly breakthrough HR system to accomplish this. Furthermore, a survey entitled Potential: Who’s Doing What to Identify Their Best? to conducted by Talent Strategy Group LLC indicates, among its other findings, that much of the approximately $70B to $75B US spent on corporate training has been “misspent”.

Tom Rauzi, Dell’s Director of Global Talent, will soon be launching a research project to assess employee data including “education, trajectories and performance” in an effort to identify candidates who might be best qualified to move up in the company.

Generally, when managers have workers with high potential, they have a tendency to choose people “who are like them”.  In another survey, this one by US-based management and advisory company CEB Inc., 25% of 9,500 manager surveyed reported that they “reply on gut instinct” when choosing potential future leaders. This might suggest why some businesses are so challenged in locating “fresh thinkers and diverse hires”.

Christopher Collins, “an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of its Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies“, reports that workers who sensed their work is being tracked and evaluated for advancement, often stay with their companies longer and work harder.

Conversely, those workers who are not tracked for future leadership may become resentful. As a result of this, SAP North America ended its high potential categorization.

Carie Davis, who until March 2015 was Coca-Cola’s Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, sensed that the company’s high potential program was made up mostly of “Type A employees” with common backgrounds. During some meetings, she found that the discussion ended up being more about “jostling for power” than the intended purpose of innovation.

At a management consulting company called Development Dimensions International Inc., a vice president named Matt Paese reported that companies are now using executive level assessment tools to test thousands of employees throughout their companies. His firm is set to soon start offering a “cheaper, lighter version” of their existing executive-level products for this purpose.

Some HR software vendors are devising their own new tools to illuminate potential. Their algorithms draw from a series of metrics including, among others, an employee’s 401(k) contributions, promotions and network connections within their firms.

For example, a system called UltiPro High Performance Predictor from Ultimate Software Group Inc., measures workers on the probability of their performing well, as distinguished from their potential, into future months. Currently, they are extending their research on “predictors of potential”.

Another suppressant of potential leadership in the workplace, rude and disrespectful behavior by management, was covered in a very insightful opinion piece in the June 25, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled No Time to Be Nice at Work, by Christine Porath. I highly recommend reading this for its many piercing analytical insights as well as an adjunct to this terrific WSJ article by Ms. Feintzeig. I found that these articles overlapped on some points and can be seen as two sides of the same coin in their effects upon today’s workplaces.

My own questions are as follows:

  • In addition to all of the testing, training, metrics collection and analysis that goes on by HR departments, what if any role does the opinion of an employee’s peers have in spotting potential? While there are many businesses that engage in peer evaluations, I wonder whether on a more informal basis, are co-workers also asked to identify which of their colleagues could be future stars?
  • What are the results of follow-up validation studies in those who were promoted along a path to leadership? While the WSJ article explores the faults in these systems, what about the successes? If John and Mary have been vetted for a leadership track, do they more often than not meet such expectations? Are they more or less inclined to change jobs or departments along the way?
  • As companies, consultants and academics continue to experiment with and fine tune their algorithms, what is the relationship between and among data establishing a correlation as opposed to actual causation in identifying leaders? (This issue has also previously been visited in these five Subway Fold posts.)

Finally, for a hilarious take on a completely unqualified and unmotivated fictional employee failing his way up the corporate ladder, I very highly recommend checking out Season 2 of Silicon Valley on HBO. Here is an interview on Tumblr with the actor Josh Brenner, discussing his role as this character named “Big Head”.

The BBC is Testing an Experimental Neural Interface for Television Remote Control

"Brain Power", Image by Allan Arifo

“Brain Power”, Image by Allan Arifo

Experimental research into using human brainwaves as an alternative form of input to control computers and prosthetic devices has been underway for a number of years. This technology is often referred to as neural interfaces or brain-computer interfaces. The results thus far have generally been promising. Here is a roundup of reports on ExtremeTech.com.

Another early phase neural interface project has been undertaken by the BBC to develop a system enabling a user to mentally select a program from an onscreen television guide. This was reported in a most interesting article entitled The BBC Wants You to Use Your Brain as a Remote Control by Abhimanyu Ghoshal, posted on TheNextWeb.com on June 18, 2015. While still using my keyboard for now, I will sum up, annotate and pose a few questions.

This endeavor, called the Mind Control TV Project, is a joint effort BBC’s digital unit and a user experience (“UX”) firm called This Place. In its current format, the input hardware is a headset that can read human brainwave signals. The article contains three pictures of the hardware and software (which is a customized version of the BBC’s iPlayer app normally used for viewing TV shows on the network).

To choose from among a number of options present onscreen, the user is required to “‘concentrate’ on it” while wearing the headset. That is, to choose a particular option, the user must concentrate upon it “for a few seconds”. A meter in the interface indicates the level of brain activity the user is generating and the “threshold” he or she must reach in order to initiate their choice.

The BBC hopes that this research will, in the future, benefit people with physical and neural disabilities that restrict their movements.

My questions are as follows:

  • Could this system eventually be so miniaturized that it could be integrated into an ordinary pair of glasses, perhaps Google Glass or something else?
  • Notwithstanding the significant benefits mentioned in this article, what other types of apps and systems might also find advantages in adapting neural interfaces?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might be waiting out there as a result of this technology?
  • How might neural interfaces be integrated with the current wave of virtual and augmented reality systems (covered in these seven recent Subway Fold posts), about to very soon enter the consumer market?

Companies Are Forming Digital Advisory Panels To Help Keep Pace With Trending Technologies

"Empty Boardroom", Image by reynermedia

“Empty Boardroom”, Image by reynermedia

As a result of the lightening-fast rates of change in social media, big data and analytics, and online commerce¹, some large corporations have recently created digital advisory panels (also called  “boards”, “councils” and “groups” in place of “panels”), to assist executives in keeping pace with implementing some of the latest technologies. These panels are being patterned as less formal and scaled-down counterparts of traditional boards of directors.

This story was covered in a fascinating and very instructive article in the June 10, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled “Companies Set Up Advisory Boards to Improve Digital Savvy” (subscription required, however, the article is fully available here on nasdaq.com). I will sum up, annotate and add a few questions of my own.

These digital advisory panels are often composed of “six outside experts under 50 years old”. In regularly scheduled meetings, their objective is to assist corporate managers in reaching diverse demographics and using new tools such as virtual reality² for marketing purposes. The executives whom the panels serve are appreciative of their “honest feedback”, access to entrepreneurs, and perspectives on these digital matters.

George L. Davis at the executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder reports that approximately 50 companies in the Fortune 500 have already set up digital advisory panels. These include, among others, Target Corp. (details below) and American Express. However, not all such panels have not continued to stay in operation.

Here are the experiences of three major corporations with their digital advisory panels:

1. General Electric

GE’s digital advisory panel has met every quarter since its inception in 2011. Its members are drawn from a diversity of fields such as gaming and data visualization³. The youngest member of their 2014 panel was Christina Xu. She is a co-founder of a consulting company called PL Data. She found her experience with GE to be “an interesting window” into a corporate environment.

Ms. Xu played a key role in creating something new that has already drawn eight million downloads. It’s called the GE Sound Pack, a collection of factory sounds recorded at their own industrial facilities, intended for use by musicians4.  In effect, with projects like this the company is using the web in new ways to enhance its online presence and reputation.

GE’s panel also participated in the company’s remembrance of the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing. Back then, the company made the silicon rubber for the Apollo 11 astronauts’ boots. To commemorate in 2014, the panel convinced GE to create and market a limited edition line of “Moon Boot” sneakers online. They sold out in seven minutes. (For more details but, unfortunately, no more chances to get a pair of these way cool sneakers, see an article with photos of them entitled GE Modernizes Moon Boots and Sells Them as Sneakers, by Belinda Lanks, posted on Bloomberg.com on July 16, 2014 .)

2.  Target Corporation

On Target’s digital advisory council,  Ajay Agarwal, who is the Managing Director of Bain Capital Ventures in Palo Alto, California, is one of its four members. He was told by the company that “there were ‘no sacred cows’ “. Among the council’s recommendations was to increase Target’s staff of data scientists faster than originally planned, and to deploy new forms of in-store and online product displays.

Another council member, Sam Yagin, the CEO of Match.com,  viewed a “showcase” Target store and was concerned that it looked just like other locations. He had instead expected advanced and personalized features such as “smart” shopping carts linked to shoppers’ mobile phones that would serve to make shopping more individualized. Casey Carl, the chief strategy and innovation officer at Target, agreed with his assessment.

3.  Medtronic PLC

This medical device manufacturer’s product includes insulin pumps for people with diabetes.5 They have been working with their digital advisory board, founded in 2011, to establish a “rapport” on social media with this community. One of the board’s members, Kay Madati, who was previously an executive at Facebook, recommended a more streamlined approach using a Facebook page. The goal was to build patient loyalty. Today, this FB page (clickable here), has more than 230,000 followers. Another initiative was launched to expand Medtronics’ public perception beyond being a medical device manufacturer.

This digital advisory board was suspended following the company’s acquisition and re-incorporation in Ireland. Nonetheless, an executive expects the advisory board to be revived within six months.

My questions are as follows:

  • Would it be advisable for a member of a digital advisory panel to also sit on another company’s panel, given that it would not be a competitor? Would both the individual and both corporations benefit by the possible cross-pollination of ideas from different markets?
  • What guidelines should be established for choosing members of such panels in terms of their qualifications and then vetting them for any possible business or legal conflicts?
  • What forms of ethical rules and guidelines should be imposed panel members? If so, who should draft,  approve, and then implement them?
  • What other industries, marketplaces, government agencies, schools and public movements might likewise benefit from their own digital advisory panels? Would established tech companies and/or startups likewise find benefits from them?
  • Might finding and recruiting members for a digital advisory panel be a new market segment for executive search firms?
  • What new entrepreneurial opportunities might emerge when and if digital advisory panels continue to grow in acceptance and popularity?

 


1.   All of which are covered in dozens of Subway Fold posts in their respective categories here, here and here.

2.  There are six recent Subway Fold posts in the category of Virtual and Augmented Reality.

3.  There are 21 recent Subway Fold posts in the category of Visualization.

4.   When I first read this, it made me think of Factory by Bruce Springsteen on his brilliant Darkness on the Edge of Town album.

5.   X-ref to the October 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Startups, Hacks and Conferences Focused Upon Health Data and Analytics concerning Project Night Scout involving a group of engineers working independently to provide additional mobile technology integration and support for people using insulin pumps.

Scientists Are Developing Massive Storage Systems Based Upon Minute Amounts of DNA and Polymers

"Yeast Helicases Unwinding DNA", Image by eLife - The Journal

“Yeast Helicases Unwinding DNA”, Image by eLife – The Journal

The world has an insatiable appetite and relentlessly growing need for more electronic memory. Those gazillions of bits and bytes created daily and being propelled forward at an ever-increasing rate need to keep on going somewhere for storage, search and retrieval. Some scientists are now looking at radically different systems that utilize DNA and highly specialized natural and synthetic substances called polymers for this.

The latest developments on these efforts, providing a new spin on the old adage “no small feat”, were reported on BusinessInsider.com in an article entitled The Future of Data Storage is in Tiny Strings of Molecules 60,000 Times Thinner Than a Strand of Hair, by Dave Gershgorn of Popular Science (where this piece was first published), posted on June 10, 2015. I will sum this up, annotate and pose a few, well, small questions.

Upon a strand of polymer, approximately 60,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair, researchers at France’s Institut Charles Sadron and Aix-Marseille Universite have been able to encode some binary data. Jean-Francois Lutz, the deputy director of Institut Charles Sadron, was one of the co-authors of a paper describing this entitled Design and Synthesis of Digitally Encoded Polymers That Can be Decoded and Erased that was published in the May 26, 2015 edition of Nature. Among many other things, only 10 grams of the polymer that Lutz has synthesized would be needed to store a zettabyte of data that, using today’s systems, would require 1,000 kilogram of cobalt alloy to manufacture comparable capacity with today’s hardware.

This new polymer is processed into a memory system by using a mass spectrometer, which is normally used in sequencing DNA. After two years of work on this research by Lutz, much more work on it remains ahead. Currently, it can only hold several bytes of info which he expects to scale up to kilobytes within five years. He views similar work on using DNA for storage as a “roadmap” for the anticipated progress of his own research.

Taking the lead on the content storage work with DNA is Harvard Medical School and Technicolor. Thus far in their work, researchers have encoded “10 megabytes to a DNA sequence”, and been able to decode a few hours later. Harvard Professor George Church, who is leading this effort, has previously printed “20 million copies of his book to DNA” consisting of a single drop of liquid. This accomplishment was first introduced on The Colbert Report on October, 4, 2012.* I highly recommend clicking-through to view this 5.5 minute interview and, likewise, reading Dr. Church’s remarkable book (which I have previously had the pleasure of reading in its brain-bending entirety), entitled Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (Basic Books, 2012). He also discussed his book in the video.

Harvard and Technicolor are examining whether and how DNA memory can be implemented for archiving “large quantities of media”. That is, since such technology can store petabytes within a single drop of liquid and last “100,000 years in the right conditions”, it might well be preferable to current storage technologies. The current constraint on DNA storage is the relative slowness in the data encoding process. However, at the current rate of progress, this might become commercially viable sometime in the future.

Lutz also believes his work on polymers will not be commercially viable for years but will nonetheless be better able as a mass storage medium than DNA in terms of its relative ease of fabrication and price.

My own questions are as follows:

  • What are the technological, economic, cultural and regulatory implications of these systems that seem to promise truly unlimited storage at a nominal price?
  • Since there is another branch of research that has been working on DNA computing for a number of years, where DNA is used for information processing, would it be advantageous to integrate this with DNA memory technology?
  • Could such DNA storage be carried around by a person within them? That is, can such memory DNA be implanted into someone such that it carries around their own information while somehow being shielded against mingling with that person’s own DNA? Let’s say a drop of this memory DNA is placed within very safe and small chip, place under a person’s skin, and then scanned to add or read data. Might this be possible and, if so, would it serve any purpose that could not be accomplished by other means?

Having nothing whatsoever to do with DNA or polymers,  but having everything to do with Steven Colbert as he prepares to take over as the host of The Late Show in just a few months, please also see this hilarious  YouTube video that went viral last week entitled The Colbeard.

 

Self-Healing Concrete Due to Soon Enter the Construction Market

"Second Avenue Subway: 96th Street", Image by MTA Photos

“Second Avenue Subway: 96th Street”, Image by MTA Photos

Please see the end of this post below for a related and most interesting December 7, 2016 update on a related new development on an experimental material called programmable cement.

While nearly all new technologies, products and services vigorously try to keep any bugs out, a modern improvement in an ancient technology that nearly everyone in the world still, well, heavily relies upon is based upon deliberately keeping all of its bugs in.

A microbiologist named Henk Jonkers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has created self-healing concrete involving bugs of a biological rather than electronic nature. The remarkable story of how he has accomplished this was reported in an article on Smithsonianmag.com entitled With This Self-Healing Concrete, Buildings Repair Themselves, by Emily Matchar, posted on June 5, 2015.

I will sum up, annotate and ask a few additional microbe-free questions.

Taking his inspiration from human biology, Jonkers has created this self-healing material by embedding concrete with limestone capsules. When the limestone is activated by “cracks, air or moisture”, it will then produce one of two forms of bacteria plus another compound called calcium lactate. In turn, these bugs will commence reacting with the calcium lactate to convert it to another chemical called calcite which then seals the cracks.

This advance could potentially solve an enduring problem when concrete is used in construction: Micro-cracks that develop later and, over time, may affect the structural integrity of a building. Moreover, further “leakage” like this in a structure can eventually result in a collapse. Jonker’s creation could put a halt this corrosive activity. The two strains of bacteria that emerge from the limestone can potentially remain “dormant for as long as 200 years”. *

Since 2011, Jonkers has been field testing his self-healing concrete on a lifeguard station which is subject to the corrosive forces at the beach. To date, it remains “watertight”.

The material will be brought to market in 2015 in the forms of “self-healing concrete, a repair mortar and a liquid repair medium”, costing between $33US to $44US per square meter. Because of this relatively high expense, it will only be used at first in structures where “leakage and corrosion” are potentially significant factors.  Nonetheless, Jonkers is working on less costly alternatives to his formulation. He also expects to scale up production of his new concrete by mid-2016.

Self-healing concrete mixtures have also been under development elsewhere at the following universities:

  • In the UK at the University of Bath, Cardiff University, also based upon bacteria (details described here)
  • In the US at MIT using “sunlight to activate polymer microcapsules” to fill in cracks (details described here), and
  • At the University of Michigan by embedding microfibers in conjunction with calcium carbonate (details described here)

Another potentially environmental benefit from self-healing concrete might be a reduction in the worldwide amount of energy used to produce concrete. Currently, it generates 5% of all of global carbon emissions and demand for concrete continues to rise as a result of growing urbanization. Thus, the increasing usage of self-healing concrete may lower the demand for the more carbon-emitting production of new concrete.

My questions are as follows:

  • Can added bacteria likewise bring self-healing capabilities to other building materials such as wood, glass, iron, marble and others?
  • In addition to self-healing, are there other beneficial properties that microbes can add to concrete as well as other construction materials?
  • Conversely, can microbes be similarly and safely somehow used in the demolition of buildings and the clearing of the resulting debris?
  • Are there any possible applications of metamaterials, as covered in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science, to concrete formulations?

There is a common expression among software programmers and developers to try to explain instances when end-users find flaws in their work. They will often, half-jokingly, say “It’s not a bug it’s a feature“. In the case of self-healing concrete, it turns out to be both.


*  For a fascinating journey through the several-millennia history of concrete, I very highly recommend Planet Concrete (Prometheus Books, 2011), by Robert Courland. The author has skillfully enlivened and fully engaged his readers in what might otherwise sound like a somewhat dull topic for a book.



December 27, 2016 Update:

A story was posted on Phys.org today entitled Scientists Develop ‘Programmable’ Cement Particles to Attain Enhanced Properties. (No author is credited.) Scientists at Rice University have created a new form of “programmable” cement that, at the microscopic level, forms new shapes that make the resulting hardened product more durable while less porous. In turn, this may result in “stronger  structures that require less concrete”. I highly recommend clicking through for a full read of this fascinating news.

How Robots and Computer Algorithms are Challenging Jobs and the Economy

"p8nderInG exIstence", Image by JD Hancock

“p8nderInG exIstence”, Image by JD Hancock

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Martin Ford (@MFordFuture) has written a very timely new book entitled Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015), which is currently receiving much attention in the media. The depth and significance of the critical issues it raises is responsible for this wide-beam spotlight.*

On May 27, 2015 the author was interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on radio station WNYC in New York. The result is available as a truly captivating 30-minute podcast entitled When Will Robots Take Your Job?  I highly recommend listening to this in its entirety. I will sum up. annotate and add some questions of my own to this.

The show’s host, Brian Lehrer, expertly guided Mr. Ford through the key complexities and subtleties of the thesis of his provocative new book. First, for now and increasingly in the future, robots and AI algorithms are taking on increasingly difficult task that are displacing human workers. Especially for those jobs that involve more repetitive and routine tasks, the more likely it will be that machines will replace human workers. This will not occur in just one sector, but rather, “across the board” in all areas of the marketplace.  For example, IBM’s Watson technology can be accessed using natural language which, in the future, might result in humans no longer being able to recognize its responses as coming from a machine.

Mr. Ford believes we are moving towards an economic model where productivity is increasing but jobs and income are decreasing. He asserts that solving this dilemma will be critical. Consequently, his second key point was the challenge of detaching work from income. He is proposing the establishment of some form of system where income is guaranteed. He believes this would still support Capitalism and would “produce plenty of income that could be taxed”. No nation is yet moving in this direction, but he thinks that Europe might be more amenable to it in the future.

He further believes that the US will be most vulnerable to displacement of workers because it leads the world in the use of technology but “has no safety net” for those who will be put out by this phenomenon. (For a more positive perspective on this, see the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World.)

Brian Lehrer asked his listeners to go to a specific page on the site of the regular podcast called Planet Money on National Public Radio. (“NPR” is the network of publicly supported radio stations that includes WNYC). This page entitled Will Your Job be Done by a Machine? displays a searchable database of job titles and the corresponding chance that each will be replaced by automation. Some examples that were discussed included:

  • Real estate agents with a 86.4% chance
  • Financial services workers with a 23% chance
  • Software developers with a 12.8% chance

Then the following six listeners called in to speak with Mr. Ford:

  • Caller 1 asked about finding a better way to get income to the population beyond the job market. This was squarely on point with Mr. Ford’s first main point about decoupling income and jobs. He was not advocating for somehow trying to stop technological progress. However, he reiterated how machines are “becoming autonomous workers, no longer just tools”.
  • Caller 2 asked whether Mr. Ford had seen a YouTube video entitled Humans Need Not Apply. Mr. Ford had seen it and recommended it. The caller said that the most common reply to this video (which tracks very closely with many of Mr. Ford’s themes), he has heard was, wrongly in his opinion, that “People will do something else”. Mr. Ford replied that people must find other things that they can get paid to do. The caller also said that machine had made it much easier and more economical for his to compose and record his own music.
  • Caller 3 raised the topic of automation in the medical profession. Specifically, whether IBM’s Watson could one day soon replace doctors. Mr. Ford believes that Watson will have an increasing effect here, particularly in fields such as radiology. However, it will have a lesser impact in those specialties where doctors and patients need to interact more with each other. (See also these three recent Subway Fold posts on the applications of Watson to TED Talks, business apps and the legal profession.)
  • Caller 4 posited that only humans can conceive ideas and be original. He asked about how can computers identify patterns for which they have not been programmed. He cited the example of the accidental discovery of penicillin. Mr. Ford replied that machines will not replace scientists but they can replace service workers. Therefore, he is “more worried about the average person”. Brian Lehrer then asked him about driverless cars and, perhaps, even driverless Uber cabs one day. Mr. answered that although expectations were high that this will eventually happen. He is concerned that taxi drivers will lose jobs. (See this September 15, 2014 Subway Fold post on Uber and the “sharing economy”.)  Which led to …
  • Caller 5 who is currently a taxi driver in New York. They discussed how, in particular, many types of drivers who drive for commerce are facing this possibility. Brian Lehrer followed-up by asking whether this may somehow lead to the end of Capitalism. Mr. Ford that Capitalism “can continue to work” but it must somehow “adapt to new laws and circumstances”.
  • Caller 6 inquired whether one of the proposals raised in VR pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book entitled Who Owns the Future (Simon & Schuster, 2013), whereby people could perhaps be paid for the information they provide online. This might be a possible means to financially assist people in the future. Mr. Ford’s response was that while it was “an interesting idea” it would be “difficult to implement”. As well, he believes that Google would resist this. He made a further distinction between his concept of guaranteed income and Lanier’s proposal insofar he believes that “Capitalism can adapt” more readily to his concept. (I also highly recommend Lanier’s book for its originality and deep insights.)

Brian Lehrer concluded by raising the prospect of self-aware machines. He noted that Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking had recently warned about this possibility. Mr. Ford responded that “we are too far from this now”. For him, today’s concern is on automation’s threat to jobs, many of which are becoming easier to reduce to a program.

To say the very least, to my own organic and non-programmatic way of thinking, this was an absolutely mind-boggling discussion. I greatly look forward to this topic will continue to gather momentum and expanded media coverage.

My own questions include:

  • How should people at the beginning, middle and end of their careers be advised and educated to adapt to these rapid changes so that they can not only survive, but rather, thrive within them?
  • What role should employers, employees, educators and the government take, in any and all fields, to keep the workforce up-to-date in the competencies they will need to continue to be valuable contributors?
  • Are the challenges of automation most efficiently met on the global, national and/or local levels by all interested contingencies working together? What forms should their cooperation take?

*  For two additional book reviews I recommend reading ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ by Barbara Ehrenreich in the May 11, 2015 edition of The New York Times, and Soon They’ll Be Driving It, Too by Sumit Paul-Choudhury in the May 15, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).