Apr 202017
 

It’s been another big year for Xero after the company passed its million user milestone, at the recent AWS Summit in Sydney founder Rod Drury to spoke to Decoding the New Economy about what’s next for the company and for small businesses.

For a company founded a decade ago, having a million paying customers is a substantial milestone and one Drury seems quite bemused by.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. When we did our IPO our promise was a hundred customers and I can remember when it was our first year our target was twelve hundred customers – I think we got to 1300 – so to pass a million is pretty nuts.

“What we’ve found is the accounting software market is probably one of the key industries where you’ll see the benefits of machine learning and AI. The reason for that is massive amounts of data but a pretty tight and structured taxonomy so we processed 1.2 trillion pieces of data in the last 12 months so the graph of data is huge.”

Far more modest volumes of data threaten to overwhelm smaller businesses and this is where Drury sees Artificial Intelligence and machine learning as essential for simplifying services and driving user adoption.

“One of the challenges is that small businesses might be great landscape gardeners or plumbers but they are terrible at actually coding transactions so we’re now seeing that wisdom of the crowd and all that data that we can code better than most normal people can. So the big epiphany was ‘why don’t we get rid of coding?’

“Effectively all a small business has to do make sure things like the data of the invoice is in the system and we can do the accounting for them and the accountants can check and see what’s going on.”

This automation of basic accounting tasks, and how these features are now embedded in cloud computing offerings, is changing how businesses – particularly software companies – are operating.

“You can’t run domestic platforms any more, because every accountant will have customers that are exporting and what we’re seeing now is global platforms connecting together so, for example, HSBC announced its bank feeds and what we’re doing with Stripe and Square.

All of the accountants need to be coaching the small businesses exporting. That’s what creates jobs.”

That global focus of business is now changing companies grow, particularly those from smaller or remote economies like Australia and New Zealand.

“What we’re finding now is the last generation of the late 90s and early 2000s was very much enterprise technology and normally companies would get to a certain point and then a US public company would have to buy them.

“Now we’re seeing truly global businesses that aren’t selling out quickly they’re actually creating businesses from this part of the world. People don’t have to live in Silicon Valley anymore, they can live in Sydney’s Northern Beaches or Auckland or Wellington and do world class work.

That remoteness is something that challenges Xero though as the company tries to get traction in the US market which is dominated by Intuit and fragmented across regional and industry lines.

“As you start off as a company listed in Australia and New Zealand it’s harder as you don’t get the benefit of the density in a smaller market. Now we’ve done enough to get these bank deals, we can now attract executives of the calibre that feels like long term leadership and that’s the benefit of doing the hard yards for a few years.

We’re past the beach head phase now and now we’re building the long term business. We want to be a big fish in a small pond.”

Overall Drury sees the cloud, particularly Amazon Web Services, as being one of the great liberators for business as smaller companies follow Xero’s footsteps.

“This is one of the amazing things AWS have done, they’ve created this flat global playing field.”

Apr 192017
 

This piece originally appeared in The Australian in July 2014. I’m republishing it here given the recent future of work related posts.

For the past four decades it’s been the working class that has suffered the brunt of the effects of globalisation and automation in the workforce. Now machines are taking middle class jobs, with serious implications for societies like Australia that have staked their future on white collar, knowledge-based service industries.

Yesterday, the Associated Press announced it was replacing business journalists with computer programs, following sports reporting where algorithms have delivering match reports for some years.

Some cynical media industry commentators would argue rewriting PR releases or other people’s stories — the model of many new media organisations — is something that should be done by machines. Associated Press’ management has come to the same view with business data feeds.

AP’s managing editor Lou Ferrara explained in a company blog post how the service will pull information out of company announcements and format them into standard news reports.

Ferrara wrote of the efficiencies this brings for AP: “Instead of providing 300 stories manually, we can provide up to 4,400 automatically for companies throughout the United States each quarter.”

The benefit for readers is that AP can cover more companies with fewer journalists, the question is how many people can afford to read financial journals if they no longer have jobs?

Making middle managers redundant

Many of those fields that cheered the loss of manufacturing are themselves affected by the same computer programs taking the jobs of journalists; any job, trade or profession that is based on regurgitating information already stored on a database can be processed the same way.

For lawyers, accountants, and armies of form processing public servants, computers are already threatening jobs — as with journalism, things are about to get much worse in those fields, as mining workers are finding with automated mine trucks taking high-paid jobs.

Most vulnerable of all could well be managers; when computers can automate financial reports, monitor the workplace and make many day-to-day decisions then there’s little reason for many middle management positions.

Removing information gatekeepers

To make matters worse for white collar middle managers, many of their positions are only needed in organisations built around paper based communication flows; in an age of collaborative tools there’s no need to gatekeepers to control the movement of information to the executive suite.

Irish economist David McWilliams — his television series on the rise of the Celtic Tiger, The Pope’s Children, and the causes of the Global Financial Crisis, Follow The Money, are highly recommended viewing – last week suggested that the forces that disrupted the working classes in the 1970s and 80s are now coming for middle classes.

“The industrial class was undermined by both technological change and globalisation, but rather than lament this, many people who were unaffected by this social catastrophe labelled what happened from 1980 to 2010 as the “inevitable consequences” of global competition.” Mc Williams writes.

Those ‘inevitable consequences’ are now coming for the middle classes, asserts McWilliams.

On the right side of progress

While this is sounds frightening it may not be bad for society as whole; the Twentieth Century saw two massive shifts in employment — the shift from manufacturing to services in the later years, and the shift from agriculture to city-based occupations earlier in the century.

A hundred years ago nearly a third of Australians worked in the agriculture sector; today it’s three per cent. Despite the cost to regional communities, the overall economy prospered from this shift.

Answers in the makers movement

The question today though is what jobs are going to replace those white collar jobs that did so well from the 1980s? The Maker Movement may have answers for governments and businesses wondering how to adapt to a new economy.

Two weeks ago President Barack Obama welcomed several dozen leaders of America’s new manufacturing movement to a Maker Faire at the White House, where he proclaimed “Today’s DIY Is Tomorrow’s ‘Made in America'”.

In Singapore, the government is putting its hopes on these new technologies boosting the country’s manufacturing industry in one of the world’s highest-cost centres.

“The future of manufacturing for us is about disruptive technologies, areas like 3D printing, automation and robotics,” Singapore’s Economic Development Board Managing Director Yeoh Keat Chuan told Reuters earlier this year.

Britain too is experimenting with modern technologies, as the BBC’s World of Business reports about how the country is reinventing its manufacturing industry.

Tim Chapman of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre describes how the economics of manufacturing changes in a high-cost economy with a simple advance in machining rotor disks for Rolls-Royce Trent jet engines.

“These quite complex shaped grooves were taking 54 minutes of machining to make each of these slots. Rolls-Royce came to us and said can ‘can you improve the efficiency of this? Can you cut these slots faster?'”

“We reduced the cutting time from 54 minutes to 90 seconds.”

“That’s the kind of process improvement that companies need to achieve to manufacture in the UK.”

While leaders in the US, UK and Singapore ponder the future of manufacturing, Australian governments continue to have faith in their 1980s models of white collar employment — little illustrates how far out of touch the nation’s political classes are with reality when they proclaim Sydney’s future as an Asian banking centre or Renminbi trading hub.

Old business ideas

In the apparatchiks’ fevered imaginations this involves rooms full of sweaty white men in red braces yelling ‘buy’ into telephones as shown in 1980s Wall Street movies. In truth, the computers took most of those jobs two decades ago.

As McWilliams points out, the dislocations to the manufacturing industries of the 1970s and 80s were welcomed by those in the professions as the inevitable cost of ‘progress’.

Now progress might be coming for them. Our challenge is to make sure we’re on the right side of that progress.

Apr 102017
 
business customer service is essential in the new economy

The call centre business is very much an example of an industry driven by technological change, having only coming into being over the last 50 years as telecommunications became ubiquitous and affordable before being one of the biggest offshored industries.

In an age of artificial intelligence, web based help pages and chatbots, it’s easy to think the call centre era may be coming to a close but Acticall Sitel Group’s Australian and New Zealand managers Steve Barker, the regional Chief Operating Officer, and Sally Holloway, Director of Business Operations, believe the industry has a long way to go yet.

Miami based Acticall Sitel Group operates call centres in 22 countries with 75,000 ‘associates’ providing services to over 200 major companies so their view on how the industry is evolving is worth hearing.

Technological shifts

Naturally technology is the driving force with the increasing availability of broadband meaning more ‘associates’ can work from home rather than in call centres while cloud services are reducing the cost and complexity of call centres.

The work from home aspect is proving popular with their clients as well as businesses see retaining skilled staff and the expense of real estate driving many organisations to extend their programs. An interesting observation given IBM’s and Yahoo!’s moves in restricting home office options in recent times.

Social media has also changed the type of interactions consumers are having with organisations while artificial intelligence and robots – chatbots – are automating many call centre functions.

A broader industry

Holloway though says she doesn’t see voice services going away, “some interactions still require the personal touch”, but technology is broadening the ways customers interact with businesses.

Interestingly, both Holloway and Barker believe that the commoditization of call centres is over as companies have realised the importance of good service in competitive markets although that varies between industries.

Added to that is the stripping out of costs in areas like customer service has largely run its course over the past few decades and in most organisations there is little fat left to cut from client facing functions.

Falling prices for technology, if not labour, does offer scope for smaller businesses to engage call centre providers that were once only available to larger corporates.

Like most industries, the relationship between workers and automation in call centres is playing out in complex ways as staff get to use more advanced skills and low value tasks are given to machines.

The evolution of the call centre may well be a pointer for other industries as we all grapple with the effects of automation.

Feb 192017
 

 

The statistics continue to come about the challenging future of work with the Harvard Business Review looking at how artificial intelligence is changing the role of knowledge workers and the World Economic Forum reports how Japan is already well down the track of automating many ‘white collar’ roles.

A couple of decades or so back, the assumption was ‘knowledge work’ represented the future of employment and the thought of management being replaced by computers or robots was unthinkable.

That hasn’t proved to be so as the low end jobs, which we thought would be taken up by displaced industrial workers were offshored, subject to a ‘race to the bottom’ in pay rates and, now, are increasingly becoming automated.

While the robots first came for call centre workers, it’s quite likely the next wave of will affect white colour workers reports Dan Tynan in The Guardian who has an overview of some of the likely fates of various occupations.

A good example of the shift, are lawyers with Tynan citing the company DoNotPay which uses AI to help customers fight traffic infringements as an example of the legal profession being automated out.

Bad for young lawyers

This though isn’t new in the legal profession. Over the past twenty years many roles in fields such as property conveyancing and contract drafting have been offshored, so much so that junior lawyer’s payrates and job prospects have collapsed as entry level jobs have dried up.

How the legal profession has used automation and offshoring is a good indicator of how these tradition industries are evolving, now a senior lawyer can handle more work and the need for juniors and paralegals is reduced. The work stays with the older worker while younger workers need to look elsewhere.

While Tynan discounts the effects of automation on the construction and health industries, those sectors are similarly being changed. Robot bricklayers, for example, allow older workers to stay in the industry longer and increase productivity.

The internet of things and artificial intelligence are similarly taking the load of nurses and doctors while making diagnostics faster and easier with major ramifications of these industries.

Dirty data

There are weaknesses in a data driven world and this gives us clues to where the future jobs may lie, the Harvard Business Review optimistically notes many roles can “composed of work that can be codified into standard steps and of decisions based on cleanly formatted data,” however obtaining ‘cleanly formatted data’ is a challenge for many organisations and managing exceptions, or ‘dirty data’ feeds, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Unexpected consequences exist as well, the media industry being a good example. While the demand for content has exploded, the rise of user generated content on social media and the collapse of advertising models has upended publishing, writing and journalism. While artificial intelligence and animation can replace actors and reporters, it hasn’t done so in a major way yet.

How industry sectors will be affected by automation is something the US Bureau of Labor Statistics looked at in 2010.

The roles which the US BLS estimates may be less affected by automation may be more affected than we think – how the retail and media industries changed in the twentieth century is instructive where the models at the beginning of the century were upended but by the end of the millennium employment in those sectors was higher than ever.

The future of work isn’t obvious and the effects of automation bring a range of unforeseen consequence and opportunities – this is why we can’t rest on our laurels and assume our jobs, trades and professions will be untouched by change.

Feb 082017
 

“Neo liberalism is dead” was Paul Mason’s opening for his talk ‘Will Robots Kill Capitalism?’ At Sydney university on Monday night.

Mason, who was promoting his book ‘Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future’ was exploring how we create an alternative to the failing neo-liberal world while avoiding the failings of the past.

Describing the current ennui towards establishment politics as being “the biggest change since the fall of the wall in 1989,” Mason believes that the neo-Liberal, pro-markets, view of the world is now failing because the general population increasingly can’t afford the credit which powers the current system.

Increasing voter hostility

With increased insecurity the general population’s hostility towards the global elites is only going to increase, Mason says, as a low work future is traps people into low income ‘bullshit jobs’.

Mason describes a bullshit job as being something like the hand car washes that have popped up around UK (and Australia) where workers are paid the absolute minimum to provide a service cheaper than any machine.

With bullshit jobs, it’s hard not to consider the white collar equivalent – just yesterday The Guardian, which Mason writes for – described a report by UK think tank Reform which suggested 90% of British public service jobs could be replaced by chatbots and artificial intelligence.

It’s easy to see those same technologies being employed in the private sector as well with middle management and occupations like Human Resources and internal communications being easily automated out by much flatter organisations.

A low work future

The result of that, which we’re already seeing, is increasingly profitable corporations that barely employ anyone.

However for companies like Google, Facebook and Apple those business models also present risks as they are valued by the market far beyond any reasonable expectation of return – even if they do manage to eat each other.

Another risk to today’s tech behemoths is the commoditization of many of their industries. “Not all of the high tech economy will be a high value economy.” Mason point out, going on to observe that Google may have recognised this in carrying out their Alphabet restructure.

The neoliberal Anglos

Not all countries though have followed the Anglo Saxon neo-liberal model over the past forty years though. In what Mason describes as “The yin and yang of globalIzation,” he point out China, Germany, Japan and South Korea Have focused on production and raising living standards while the English speaking nations enforced austerity on their populations with large groups being left behind both socially and economically.

Which leads to Mason’s key question, “will the low work future see neoliberalism replaced by ‘neo-feudalism’ or something more enlightened?”

To support the latter, Mason suggests a transition path into the ‘low work future with the following features;

  • automation
  • basic income
  • state provided cheap, basic goods
  • externalising the public good
  • attacking rent seeking
  • promoting the circular economy
  • investing in renewable energy

That list seems problematic, and at best hopelessly idealistic, in today’s economies – particularly in the neoliberal Anglosphere.

A need for new mechanisms

Mason’s points though are important to consider if we are facing a ‘low work’ society as there has to be some mechanisms to allow citizens a decent standard of living even if the bulk of the population is unemployed.

Even if we aren’t facing a low work future, the transition effects we’re currently experiencing where many of today’s jobs are going to be automated away threaten serious political and economic dislocation in the short to medium term.

What Mason reminds us is that the political and economic status quos can’t be maintained in the face of dramatic technological change. We have to consider how we’re going to manage today’s transformations so we don’t end up in a neo-feudal society with the discontent that will entail.

 

Dec 212016
 

What happens when the founder and CEO of one of the world’s biggest tech companies decides to create a genuinely smart home? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spend 2016 finding out.

“My goal was to learn about the state of artificial intelligence — where we’re further along than people realize and where we’re still a long ways off,” Zuckerberg writes in a blog post.

The immediate problem Zuckerberg faced in creating his home made Jarvis automation system was many household appliances are not network ready and for those that are,  the proliferation of standards makes tying them together difficult.

For assistants like Jarvis to be able to control everything in homes for more people, we need more devices to be connected and the industry needs to develop common APIs and standards for the devices to talk to each other.

Having jerry rigged a number of workarounds, including a cannon to fire his favourite t-shirts from the wardrobe and retrofitting a 1950s toaster to make his breakfast, Zuckerberg then faced another problem – the user interface.

While voice is presumed to be the main way people will control the smart homes of the future, it turns out that text is a much less obtrusive way to communicate with the system.

One thing that surprised me about my communication with Jarvis is that when I have the choice of either speaking or texting, I text much more than I would have expected. This is for a number of reasons, but mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me. If I’m doing something that relates to them, like playing music for all of us, then speaking feels fine, but most of the time text feels more appropriate. Similarly, when Jarvis communicates with me, I’d much rather receive that over text message than voice. That’s because voice can be disruptive and text gives you more control of when you want to look at it.

Given the lead companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple have over Facebook in voice recognition, it’s easy to dismiss Zuckerberg’s emphasis on text, but his view does feel correct. Having a HAL type voice booming through house isn’t optimal when you have a sleeping partner, children or house guests.

Zuckerberg’s view also overlooks other control methods, Microsoft and Apple have been doing much in the realm of touch interfaces while wearables offer a range of possibilities for people to communicate with systems.

The bigger problem Zuckerberg identifies is with Artificial Intelligence itself. At this stage of its development AI struggles to understand context and machine learning is far from mature.

Another interesting limitation of speech recognition systems — and machine learning systems more generally — is that they are more optimized for specific problems than most people realize. For example, understanding a person talking to a computer is subtly different problem from understanding a person talking to another person.

Ultimately Zuckerberg concludes that we have a long way to go with Artificial Intelligence and while there’s many things we’re going to be able to do in the near term, the real challenge lies in understanding the learning process itself, not to mention the concept of intelligence.

In a way, AI is both closer and farther off than we imagine. AI is closer to being able to do more powerful things than most people expect — driving cars, curing diseases, discovering planets, understanding media. Those will each have a great impact on the world, but we’re still figuring out what real intelligence is.

Perhaps we’re looking at the what intelligence and learning from a human perspective. Maybe we to approach artificial intelligence and machine learning from the computer’s perspective – what does intelligence look like to a machine?

Nov 232016
 

Should we be rethinking how computers are designed? The co-founder and CEO of chip designer Nervana, Naveen Rao, believes so as artificial intelligence applications change the way systems work.

“A brain only uses 20 watts of power to do far more than a laptop,” observes Naveen Rao at a breakfast following Intel’s Artificial Intelligence Day in San Francisco last week.

“Presumably the brain is doing more computation than your laptop,” he continues. “What are we missing? Why is there such a big difference between what a computer can do and a brain can do. Let’s try to understand that and maybe what we learn can change how we design computers.”

A lifetime passion

Rao, whose company was acquired by Intel for over four hundred million dollars last August, was discussing the quest to make computers operate more like brains and less like adding machines.

For Rao this has been a lifetime passion, having graduated as an electrical engineer and spending most of his career designing computer chips at Sun Microsystems and various startups he quit his job to do a PhD in neuroscience, “after ten years, I wanted to return to my passion of trying to use biology to better understand computers.”

From that combination of study and experience Nervana was founded in 2014 and raised twenty million dollars from investors before being acquired by Intel.

Replicating the bird, not the feathers

The key part in creating a computer that acts more like a brain is to get the individual CPUs to be working together in a network similar to the mind’s neural paths, “look at a bird compared to a plane.” Rao says,” we don’t replicate the feathers, but we do the function.”

Doing this meant rethinking how processors are designed, “there are tried are true methods of chip architecture that we basically questioned.”

“We don’t need high levels of generality. We don’t need this to work on energy or weather simulations. We removed some of that baggage.”

Paring back the processor

So the Nervana team stripped down the individual processor and removed many functions, such as a cache, that are built into today’s advanced CPUs. Those lighter weight, and less power hungry, units can then be combined into neural networks more suited to artificial intelligence functions than today’s computers.

“Nvidea, this sort of fell into their laps,” observes Rao of Intel’s key competitor in the AI, graphics and gaming space. “It just so happens the graphics functions on their chips are suited to Artificial Intelligence applications.”

Without the more complex functions of modern CPUs, Rao and the Nervana team see the opportunity to build more flexible computers better suited to artificial intelligence applications.

Intel focuses on AI

That focus on AI has seen Intel branding its AI initiatives under the Nervana brand name as the iconic Silicon Valley company tries to move ahead with more nimble competitors like Qualcomm and NVidea.

For the computer industry, artificial intelligence promises to be the next major advance, something necessary if we are ever going to make sense of the masses of data being collected by smart devices and the reason why Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook are all making massive investments in the field.

Regardless of whether Intel and Nervana are successful in the AI marketplace, Rao sees the entire field of neural computing as a great opportunity. “It’s exciting, there’s lots of chances to innovate.”

Paul travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Intel