Staying Human in the Digital Age

Businesswoman Surrounded by Robots

“47% of all jobs will be replaced by technology in the next 10 years.”

I was sitting listening to Karie Willyerd (Twitter: @angler) talk about the future of HR technology during our annual SAP SuccessConnect conference and, though I was aware that the topic of the talk had moved on, my mind had seized onto that one terrifying statistic and it wasn’t letting go. It hadn’t been three weeks since I’d sat with my 14 year old son looking through grade 9 subject choices with him. What subjects should he choose to set himself up for the right university courses and admittance to those areas that interest him? We’d just attended a Monash University science day and talked with lecturers about careers in science – my son’s passion – and what he should be focusing on if he wanted to pursue those particular disciplines. Based on current learning conventions, over the course of his schooling he’d continue to refine those skills ever more finely and then he’d enter university where he’d undergo an expensive big-bang approach to learning that would set the foundation for his future career – the set of related jobs that would comprise his working adult life. Only … if what I was seeing on the screen was true then this was somewhat akin to gambling. Half of all jobs would be gone by the time he left university and, given the relentless pace of technology, would be replaced by what? The model seems broken to me, the big-bang approach to learning flawed and a relic of a pre-digital era. The pressure on our kids to get it right in an ever increasing competitive and populous world: overwhelming.

It is easy for those of us who work in technology, and love technology for technology’s sake, to gloss over what the digital transformation will mean for ourselves and for our species. It’s easy to get carried away with the marvels of machine learning and robotics, hyper-connected devices, ever smarter smart phones, and a cornucopia of gadgets to delight and to distract. We find ourselves attracted to the easy and emotionally safe components of these conversations – how self-driving cars will be a boon for traffic and road safety and gloss over the effects these changes will have on people. Whole industries will be transformed forever as disruptive technologies like Uber are currently doing with the taxi industry. It’s easy to not think about the livelihoods of taxi drivers or long-haul truckers and the uncertain future they face. For some it’s also easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, that somehow our specialisation and skills make us safe from these changes. Nothing could be further from the truth as analysts predict that highly-skilled jobs like those in finance, or engineering, or medicine could be equally affected by disruptive technology.

New fields of consulting seem to be springing up around us like weeds. “Transform your Business for the Digital Tomorrow” they promise, or “Ensure your Continued Professional Relevance”; the quick-fix feel-good for the future. But I am concerned at the superficial nature of the questions we’re asking as part of the process and the assumptions we’re making without a significant re-evaluation of our circumstances, our motivations, or our mindset. So much of how we’re measured in our daily and professional lives – from instant feedback, to time-tracking, to always-on mobile, to sifting constantly through a daily barrage of digital information for relevance – is arguably dehumanising us in subtle ways. It is the classic boil the frog slowly problem and we’ve bought into this new normal: this always on, always distracted, always connected, and always processing and sifting vast amounts of content. The problem is that neuropsychology shows were not very good at these things as human beings – our biology just hasn’t had the time to catch up with the information age. Computers, they’re exceptionally good at this stuff. As machines get smarter and better at information processing we seem to be trying to keep up with them while at the same time getting further away from those things machines can’t do well: the capacity for love and empathy, the ability to think deeply on topics of importance, the ability to connect in an invested way, to appreciate beauty, to be creative, I’d even argue the importance of being bored once in a while.

Science fiction in the 1950’s and 1960’s promised us a golden future where technology would replace jobs but would give back to us in time and leisure to pursue the more self-actualised aspects of our humanity. Current science fiction, the bellwether of technology trends and progression, is painting a bleaker more dystopian future. So what’s happening?

Professor Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, argues:

“We’re designing work that takes away the only opportunity humans have to be different from machines … the very technology that makes creativity important is limiting it because of the way we’re choosing to make jobs work.”

One issue driving our acceptance of current technology trends is the belief in, and the sense of security we have around, the direction of technology innovation. We have an unconscious bias in believing that technology builds on a series of rational or sound scientific milestones and that somehow positive intent is a given. The reality seems to show something slightly different; that technology follows a more organic pattern and feeds on, and is driven by, many aspects of human nature that are arguably less desirable. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” to represent an idea or behaviour that spreads between people or within cultures. The informational payload of memes have many aspects of biological propagation and mutation and are subject to selective pressures within the environments they are active. Technology it seems propagates in a very similar way and much of technology is driven by ever increasing consumerism and commoditisation. Some of the most negatively disruptive aspects of technology are driven solely by shareholder primacy and the need to see change on the bottom line at the cost of all other considerations – the increasing prevalence of targeted advertising, both as a general trend and one driving many machine learning initiatives in online retail is a good example.

When Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking issued concerns about artificial intelligence (A.I.) most of the world had a little fun with the Skynet / Terminator analogies and then moved on. On a recent Reddit, Stephen Hawking clarified his position by saying:

“The real risk with artificial intelligence isn’t malice but competence.”

His analogies are simple:

“You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, to bad for the ants.”

With predictions pointing to a critical threshold and then an exponential ramp-up both in capacity and intelligence in A.I. it is not out of the realms of possibility to foresee a time when the collective intelligence of a human being might appear ant-like to a machine. Hawking calls for us to be careful about how we approach machine intelligence and cautions that rather than exploring undirected A.I. we should be focusing on ensuring A.I. research is more targeted to us and the outcomes we need as human beings. Hawking foresees two possible futures: one where most people can live a better, more luxurious life if the resources freed up by machines are shared. In another future most people are “miserably poor” and the rich who own the machines end up consolidating the wealth and the benefit. Given our current situation the worry is the second future is more likely.

We are undoubtedly at an inflection point – one that demands of us the most human of attributes applied correctly to solving the problems of the future in a way that benefits ourselves and the generations to come. The digital revolution is here and we’ve only scratched the surface of the disruption that will reshape our world. We should embrace those aspects that make us truly unique from machines and direct our creative endeavours to solving some of the hurdles that lie before us now. This demands of us a responsibility for the tools and the automation we deploy. It demands that we think deeply about the human story in the fields of disruption and provide solid mechanisms for re-training and learning for those who need new skills. It demands that we proceed with caution and with a strong ethical framework in the fields of machine intelligence.

What good is any technology unless is frees us to explore the better aspects of out nature? The best technology stories always have people at their heart and they, in my humble opinion, always enable a better future for us and allow us to do what we do best: be human.

Where the Wild Things are.


Here are fairy stories as they were meant to be told before they pandered to pleasant untroubled dreams. Behold, the complete tales of the brothers Grimm. In a mad push to prevent a cultural dilution by the French during the Napoleonic wars, Wilhelm and his brother Jacob scoured the countryside for local stories and fairy tales. These were stories as told true and untainted by the human heart. Dark tales, scary tales. Tales where really bad things could happen if you wondered too far into the woods. Tales where people did unspeakable things and witches were made to dance to their deaths in burning iron shoes. These are not safe tales. Beware if you enter unprepared.

Story Generator update

The first of my planned updates to my story generator is complete. I have made the output simpler to understand, have improved the content that feeds into the generator and have done a fair bit or re-coding to allow me to re-use elements on other projects. The output from the generator is just what I’d always wanted from such a tool which is probably why I decided to write my own in the first place.

I moved away from clunky text lists into much more elegant JSON containers and have started adding more sophisticated elements for me to maintain and update the back-end. I’ve also added in 5 wildcards from a lists file I maintain and add to regularly. The list file is predominantly a list of nouns, of things that came to mind that I may – at some point – like to include in a story or make into a story. The wildcards are elements which could be included in your story just to mix things up a bit.

I realise the page looks a bit bland. I’m exploring ways to add a visual component to the experience but that’s for later. For now I hope you like the changes!

4 February, 2015 11:21

One of the greatest boons to travelling for work is the quiet. The blissful lack of noise in the evenings. A rejuvenating time filled with books, reading, good wine, and writing. This is in direct contrast to the norm of arguing children, the infernal television, dirty dishes, and school lunches. Not to in any way discount the exhausting latter, but I do so enjoy the former from time to time.

Not to Write is To Die

Not to write, for many of us is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of the day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audience would know.

A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.

But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

~ Ray Bradbury (Introduction to Zen in the Art of Writing)

Online Story Generator now available

I like using story generators for my writing practice because you just never know what you’re going to end up with. This is a great thing because it forces you to adapt, to try writing about something that’s not in your zone of comfort, that’s different enough to make you feel incomfortable and when I’m uncomfortable is usually when I’m growing. I couldn’t find an online story generator I liked (no disrespect to the vast number of far more comprehensive ones out there) so I threw one together in php to suit my needs.

It’s fairly rudimentary but I’m continually updating the topic lists as I go and, to date, it’s served me pretty well. Feel free to try it and let me know how you go. Suggestions for future iterations are welcome.

You will find the link in the right panel now or follow the following link: Story Gen


Dreams. Day One Entry: 16 Aug 2014

One of the annoying consequences of getting older is the transition of your dreams from the fascinating to the mundane. I recall dreams in my teens and early twenties where I visited strange other worlds, saw in colours I could not describe on waking, wandered the airy interiors of giant organic helical alien towers and had the ability to fly. These were but a few of the fantastic memories I have of what filled my thoughts during those long deep slumbers.

These days the dreams seem pedestrian by comparison. Last night I awoke in a cold sweat having dreamed of someone emptying my wallet of all my cards just prior to me having to go on a business trip. I mean how awfully mundane!

To be fair, there was a brief modicum of redemption. I did dream about being at a work conference where we were attempting a live link up with a machine intelligence that had lain undiscovered because of our need to anthropomorphise the criteria of what it means to be intelligent. In other words we just didn’t have the frame of reference to understand that an artificial intelligence would likely arise to be very different to what we’d recognise as intelligence. Anyway, fascinating look at this link up with these machine avatars that looked like pale reflections of something ultimately albino Geigeresque. Unfortunately a work salesman stepped up and tried to do the corporate pitch as the first human hello. Completely killed the mood and I woke in abject horror.

In any event, I think there’s a short story in there … albeit without the salesman!

Farewell Iain.

Iain M. Banks

I’ve just learned that Iain Banks is dead.

Dead because the cells in his body went haywire and we couldn’t fix it. We can spend trillions of dollars killing one another in the name of all sorts of causes but we can’t fix those little building blocks of life that we’re all constructed from. I knew he was sick, I knew it was an inevitability but the insidious nature of cancer means the hope that there is still time. The slap in the face, the shock and tears, those came from reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute.

Those who knew him described him as funny, exuberant, full of life, fiercy intelligent. I hadn’t met him in person; I was never that fortunate. I did however travel the galaxy of the far flung future on immense sentient starships with outrageous names and intellects and met all sorts of wonderful characters doing all sorts of unbelievable things.

Iain M. Banks opened my mind in ways few authors ever have – his books are remarkable and he will not write another. An important part of the human collective has passed away; a man whose work will continue to inspire and have us reaching for a future I desperately want to live in.

I am surprised by how hard I’m taking this. How disappointed I am in our species which channels orders of magnitude more into death than life. In cancer as an inevitable end for so many great people. Into the fact there will never be another quirky GSV to ferry me away across the galaxy.

So long Iain, in the world I choose to live in the only, and inevitable, outcome was that you were whisked away by the Quietly Confident before the end. Happy travels.

Tapping the Dark Places


Sometimes, during a creative writing exercise, entire scenes arrive in my head fully formed and gravid. I seem to be able to spin the words into a single harmonious thread that begins and ends with barely a break and almost never an edit or rewrite. Sometimes the end product is light and inspirational, sometimes I tap the dark places that exists deep down in each and every one of us and the stories are scary and taboo. Either way I write until the ink is done. What remains, the story and the characters, seem to have a core of truth to them. I want to go back and explore what will happen to the people and places spun from imagination. This is one that scared me a little but I know I will have to come back to soon – I have to find out what happens at the top of the ladder. Readers of the incredible Dark Tower series may recognise the Crimson King in the image above, king of spiders say true.

‘I don’t want to go!’ The boy said, his eyes blazing fiercely in the candle light.
‘I know.’ The woman put her hand on his shoulder to reassure him. ‘I know.’ Her eyes glistened, pain visible on her face, she knew what she was asking.
‘If you don’t we’ll starve.’ The unwashed sullen man said. ‘You want your kin to starve boy?’
‘Ted!’ The woman snapped. ‘There is a way to go about this. He knows the consequences so back off!’
Ted dragged the tin cup unsteadily toward himself and quaffed a mouthful of the homemade spirits. He belched and a smell of paraffin and old leather filled the small dug-out.
‘I’m scared of the monsters.’
‘I know … we all are … ‘
‘They won’t hurt me will they?’
The woman gave the child a hug. ‘No, no they won’t. They may scare you but they won’t hurt you.’
‘If you go … they’ll hurt you?’ He asked. There was a desperate searching quality in his eyes. A last ditch attempt to change the very nature of things born from his childish hope that believing in a thing could change it in the end.
The hope in his eyes died as it did every night.
‘They’ll take you back to the dark places and they’ll …’ His voice faltered and he looked down at the floor.
‘But they leave children alone?’
‘Because they’re clever bastards!’ Ted belched again. ‘Because they know children grow up to be adults. Because they know if they eat all the children then one day they’ll all go hungry.’
‘That’s horrible!’ the boy said.
‘Yes it is love.’ The woman said, ‘but Ted speaks the truth. Ever since the fall it’s been that way.’
He was silent for a bit, digesting the information that he knew already. It was the same every night.
‘Mother, when will I be big enough for them?’
She tried to hide the fear that crept in behind her eyes but her tears betrayed her. The truth was, with the children out of the shelters scavenging for food there would probably come a time when the tasters would decide they were big enough. And then they would not return. It was the lot of most, except for those who would be chosen to stay behind, to continue, to endure.
‘I don’t know. Not for many years still.’ She said it with all the conviction she could muster.
The boy stood and she did not miss the way he held onto the table.
‘Okay!’ he said more firmly.
She led him to the ladder, the one leading up to the narrow opening where he would slip out into the night. The one too small for them to squeeze their bloated chitinous bodies through, the one protecting them from the spines and the long lancing grippers.
‘Okay!’ he said, more softly and began to climb before his nerve failed him again.


Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.

Isaac Asimov