Three Ideas we Must get our Heads Round in 2018

It’s generally believed that the oldest board game that has been continuously played is Go, dating back to China more than 2,500 years ago. For those of you that haven’t played, the aim is to surround more territory than your opponent. The game is played on a 19 x19 grid and it’s far more complex than chess: the number of possible moves is put at 2 x 10170 – or, more simply, there are more potential moves in one game than there are atoms in the universe.

So quite a lot.

Anyway, last month Google-owned DeepMind introduced AlphaGo Zero, their latest evolution of a computer programme which defeated the Go World Champion earlier this year. You remember those possible moves? More than there were atoms in the universe? The programme mastered them all in less than 72 hours – with no human help.

blog

The simple fact is that machines are going to surpass human intellect in any given intellectual task: right now, the AI community believes that 2060 is a reasonable estimate for its arrival – but not so long ago driverless cars weren’t going to be on our roads until 2040…

We all need to get our heads round Artificial Intelligence and we need to do it quickly. Worryingly US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says he isn’t worried about AI and automation: it’s so far away apparently, “that it’s not even on my radar screen.” Presumably he’s not yet read McKinsey’s report saying that robots will take 800m jobs worldwide by 2030…

Meanwhile Home Secretary Amber Rudd cheerfully stands up at the Conservative Conference and admits she doesn’t really know how encryption works.

Well no – we don’t need our Home Secretary to pop back to her bedroom after a Cabinet meeting and do a bit of coding. But it would be useful if our political leaders had a vague idea of what’s coming down the track. Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook most certainly do know what’s coming – and it is going to impact your business.

Let me give you a simple example. I don’t know how many possible ‘moves’ there are in deciding whether to lend you or me £250,000 to buy a new house or build that new factory. I do know that it is significantly less than the number of atoms in the universe. I’m acutely aware that sooner rather than later I’m going to need to offer Dan and Rory some careers advice: bank manager may not be top of the list.

Now a rather more basic idea that far too many people still need to tackle: like AI it needs to be on your to-do list at the start of 2018 and crossed off it by the end of the year. The very basic idea is equal pay.

I was reading a salary comparison produced by a TAB member: very clearly, women in North Yorkshire – even in senior roles in the professions – are paid less than men. One line in the report leapt out at me. In comparison to men, women effectively work for nothing from November 7th onwards.

Just say the following out loud. “I’m sorry, you’re bald, we’re going to pay you 80% of what we pay people with hair.” Or try this: “Yes, well, obviously it would have been £3,000 a year more but you’ve got ginger hair…”

…And if you still have a problem with equal pay, go and sort it out now. Equal pay is ethical, it makes business sense and – bluntly – it is just the right thing to do.

And the last idea? Disruption. Henry Ford disrupted horses, Uber disrupted taxis and – as above – AI and ‘fintech’ are going to painfully and permanently disrupt traditional banking. Oh, and the nice, cosy world inhabited by Gillette and Wilkinson Sword and impossibly good-looking men with impossibly smooth chiselled jaws? I’m very sorry, but the Dollar Shave Club is coming to the UK.

Whatever industry you are in – and not for one minute do I exempt peer-to-peer coaching from the list – it is going to be disrupted. We need to be the disruptors, not the disrupted. At the very least, we need to be thinking a long way outside the box, so that we’re prepared when the Dollar Shave Club – or its equivalent – appears on our horizon.

 

Brave New World? Or Lonely Planet?

We’ve all been there at some stage in our business careers. You’re called to a meeting. Attendance is crucial. A three-line whip. Apparently the very survival of the company is at stake.

You settle in. The sales director/MD/new owner drones on for an hour. You retain the will to live – but only just. “Well,” someone says as you emerge back into the sunlight. “There’s an hour of my life I won’t see again. Why didn’t he just give us the notes?”

“Too right,” you say, as you both wonder where the bar is…

I felt much the same way last week as I listened to the Budget. Why didn’t you just give us the notes, Phil? We could have read them on our iPads as we ate breakfast. All that time and expense saved. Not to mention the acres of newsprint and the trees…

Only three things jumped out at me from the Budget speech. First and foremost, stamp duty. Good. A sensible move: there are few better investments in life than buying your first home.

Secondly, one of the numbers – or as the Chancellor put it, “an economic-y bit.” Specifically, it was this sentence: “Annual borrowing will be £49bn this year – £8.4bn lower than forecast in March.” He announced it as good news: I found it slightly alarming. That forecast in March was made by the Office for Budget Responsibility – presumably featuring a few brains on hefty salaries. And yet in just eight months they were 15% out with their forecast? I know plenty of TAB members who’d consider that a completely unacceptable performance from the proverbial back of an envelope.

Lastly, another phrase: “Britain is at the forefront of the technological revolution.” Cue a few raised eyebrows in Silicon Valley and China – but he did at least follow it with the £84m commitment to recruit more computer science teachers.

A week or so previously I’d been chatting to the parents of one of Dan’s classmates. We’d been discussing the world of work our children would go into – and then I’d come home to stumble across a quote from Professor Steve Furber of the University of Manchester – and one of the early pioneers of the Acorn Computer. He put it very simply: “The rate at which technology is transforming the workplace means that we live in a world where many primary schoolchildren will work in technology based roles that do not yet exist, so it is essential that [they] can apply digital skills with confidence.”

So ‘technological revolution’ and ‘Brave New World’ are right. But the changing face of the workplace doesn’t just present a problem for our children. It will also present a problem for us as employers – and our employees.

It’s a well-worn stat now: by the middle of the next decade millennials – those who became adults around the turn of the century – will make up 75% of the workforce. And we all know what millennials want: they want to work flexibly, have the chance to work from home, avoid the 9-to-5 commute and have a better work/life balance.

So as employers, life becomes very simple: all we have to do is give our staff what they want – and then sit back and watch productivity shoot up: after all, it’s a well-documented fact that people who work flexibly are more productive and take less time off for sickness.

But is it that simple? Or are there some long-term trends that should concern us?

People are likely to find the traditional office environment changing rapidly in the next few years. Up to two-thirds of companies are planning to implement hot-desking and shared workspaces by 2020. The trend has started in the Far East but will quickly spread to the West as multinationals and large companies realise the savings they can make – despite evidence that employees do not like the practice.

By 2025 many companies will be holding virtual reality meetings – meaning that physical meetings will become a thing of the past and there will be even less need to travel into an office.

Even if you do go into the office, by 2030 it is likely that you will be working with an AI office assistant – a robot that will book travel, arrange virtual meetings and complete other administrative tasks. (Let’s hope science can tell the difference between milk chocolate and plain chocolate digestives…)

You might say that none of the above matters – that if remote workers are so productive they’re changes we should welcome. I’m not so sure: I think the very low-tech office water cooler still has a crucial role to play.

lonely-office-man-003

I know half a dozen people who work on their own, more or less isolated from real human contact as they write, design or illustrate. What do at least three of them describe as their main problem? Not finding clients, not delivering their work and not getting paid. Their main problem is loneliness.

And with many people warning that the UK is facing an epidemic of loneliness, with all its attendant health and social care costs, adding a generation of work-at-home millennials may not be a sensible long-term idea.

So the ever-faster pace of change is going to bring challenges for both employers and their employees. Employers will need to keep an increasingly distant workforce engaged and motivated. Millennials may find that their desire to work flexibly is readily seized on by their employers – and translates not into working flexibly but into working alone, with meetings conducted by virtual reality and sales figures and reports handed over to the AI assistant. In the future, it may not be just the elderly that are lonely…