A Post Crisis, Economic Recovery and Crisis Mitigation Proposal

In my last post, I argued that Supply Chains increased the spread of the COVID-19 Pandemic. I proposed the idea of regional centers for manufacturing to minimize sprawling supply chains and to encourage local innovation to meet different needs based on those regions. I think I need to take this to the next step. Localizing ability to respond to crises. Obviously there are huge benefits to scaling manufacturing capability during times of stability and crisis alike. The cost of making a single N95 mask is much lower whenever you know you’re going to crank out another 100,000 masks over the next few weeks. Because the cost of all that capital equipment is spread across all the masks.

However, because of the centralization of these manufacturing centers, in many cases in China or South East Asia, this creates a supply issue if the entire world needs the exact same thing. This requires a strong central buyer to compete on the market to buy additional supplies. In the US that should be the Federal Government. Sadly, this hasn’t happened and in fact, the President is playing favorites with states and providing medical supplies. This is hugely problematic. However, there’s an opportunity here to protect states in the future from an outbreak and to rebuild the economy.

I propose that states, let’s go with Oregon, cause I live there, creates regional innovation and manufacturing centers (OIMC – Oregon Innovation and Manufacturing Center). These OIMC should be positioned at least one per country, but carefully to ensure that if there’s a critical event, such as a Cascade Subduction Event, the region will have an OIMC on each side of the event. In the Portland Metro Area we’d want one in Easter Portland and one in Beaverton or Hillsboro. Furthermore, these should be located in such a way that if a tsunami hits the coast, an OIMC can double as a shelter and emergency production center.

The goal of the OIMC at the surface would be to manufacture critical items during a crisis. For example an OIMC would have the inventory to build ventilators, N95 masks, disease test kits, materials to stop flooding, fight fires, or whatever major crisis emergency items that might impact that specific region. For example, Roseburg might have more items to fight forest fires than the Portland region, because of the types of crises that impact that region. The list of items should be defined by a combination of FEMA and that state’s emergency and health agency.

However, we can’t just have an OIMC doing this sort of work. There aren’t enough crises (thankfully), to warrant establishing a dozen or more of these locations. That’s why these aren’t just Crisis Manufacturing Centers, these are innovation centers. They become a low cost rental space for businesses to start. For example, you want to open a welding shop but can’t afford the cost of equipment, hiring people, managing books, and the cost of a place to rent? No problem, the OIMC will offer business loans and services to manage HR, your books, sales, and provide a no cost then low cost rental location. You have trouble hiring people with the right skills? No problem the OIMC will offer year round training sessions on a variety of tools. It will have to because it will need to have all the skills to make those critical items.

Wait a minute, won’t the OIMC be competing with other companies? Yes. However, whenever we are not in crisis the OIMC can become flex capacity that companies can rent out until they have the capital they need to expand their business. So, during normal time the State of Oregon is not competing with medical suppliers. They are place that offers services instead. This will allow the OIMC to essentially pay for itself.

Furthermore, these centers offer an opportunity for the region to develop and build technologies they need to support themselves. Given the cost of some farming equipment, the OIMC could elect to manufacture some lower cost farming equipment in really hard hit regions. There are some blueprints at Open Source Ecology which can provide an idea of what we could build, if we need these OIMC to provide a lot of capability during a short time.

Holistically, I think this approach can provide flexible manufacturing capability during a major crisis that will allow states and counties to meet their need when the entire country is stressed at once. It will provide regional support during times of emergencies, which seem to occur more and more frequently, and it can provide an opportunity to rebuild communities by offering skills and spaces to start new businesses. Everyone is going to be hit hard by this pandemic. We need a serious plan for addressing this.

Depression, Trust, and Therapy

When you have depression, it’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to open up to people and explain to them what depression is, what it’s like to live with, and what the causes of your depression are. So, when you find someone that you can trust and feel like you can open up to, it’s a revelation. You feel like there’s someone in the world that you can truly be yourself around. Often this is a friend. Of course, you have to be careful not to over due the depressive talk, because you could bring them down and eventually push them away.

It’s understandable, when shits bad and all you talk about is your problems, it can eventually come across as whiney, especially if the other person is in a similar situation. If they have depression, they will get it, if they don’t have depression, they will be as support as they can for as long as they can, but eventually, they’ll say something like “get over it.”

So, if you’re lucky enough to have a good health plan (in the US) and a good salary, you might be one of the lucky people that can afford therapy from a licensed professional that will never say “get over it” to you. They will help you work through your problems and do so in a safe place. You can tell the right professional anything and they will help you deal with that. In the cases that they cannot help you, something’s outside their expertise (like gender dysphoria) they might refer you to a specialist in that field.

The important thing about all this, which helps to build trust with the therapist, is that everything about these visits is safe and secure. No one need know that you are visiting your therapist, but the people that you tell. However, if you cannot afford that sort of help, then there are apps that are supposed to help you. One such app is Better Help. However, if I was using it, I’d immediately stop. They share “anonymous” data with third parties, according to a Jezebel report.

One of the companies they share this data with is Facebook. Which is a huge red flag for me. Facebook, if you have an account (and to some extent even if you don’t) has a huge amount of data about you. It uses super cookies to continually track you even when you aren’t on the website, it buys data about people to build profiles, and it uses sophisticated tools to build shadow profiles for people that are not on their service.

I had Facebook for years, basically from the day it came to The University of Pittsburgh, up through 2016 election, so basically around 10-12 years worth of ever decreasing data. Even deleted, they probably kept something about my profile. Since they know that I don’t have a Facebook account, they are able to build a profile about me from data they acquire from other sources. It’s likely they scrape websites, like Good Reads (where I review most of my books) and loyalty rewards (I don’t have any at stores like Target) to build a profile of things that I’d want to buy. They sell ads, so they use this information to understand what someone my age might want to buy and to sell better targeted ads.

They have developed a profile about me, from anonymous data. This means, they have sophisticated tools to de-anonymize data. Given that, according to the article, they know when people are depressed and upset, they already have a set of users that they’ve flagged as candidates for mental health support. They have the tools to associate data from Better Help with an actual person. I don’t know about you, but I do not want Facebook to know anything about my mental healthcare.

This, to me, represents a vital break in trust between patient and mental health provider. I trust that the only people that know about my care are those I tell, my doctor, and my health insurer. I trust this, because it is the law. The law helps me feel safe and allows me to have better trust in both my insurer and my doctor. The law, HIPPA, requires YOU to consent to any data transfer and asks for it before it can even occur, every time. So, you might consent to share the minimum amount of data, but that data is more than sufficient to do harm, in the long term.

People seeking help are vulnerable. They can be preyed upon. Even a good therapist who doesn’t like dealing with a specific health insurer can make you feel preyed upon. A company as unscrupulous as Facebook will target you and take advantage of you. It’s dangerous and must stop. If you use Better Help, look for an alternative. If you use Facebook and you can stop, you should stop.

Ethics in Technology Matters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Right, We Instill Our Biases in Technology

Some people are unhappy about what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is saying here. People not like to imagine that software cannot have politics, intentionally or otherwise.

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Whenever I was earning my master’s degree, I took a number of courses on the ethics of technology and the history of technology in general.In one of my classes we learned that bridges, yes bridges can have politics. There was an architect, Robert Moses, that was hired by New York City to design and build bridges. Given that NYC is an island and there’s a lot of water there, building bridges is a pretty big deal. Robert Moses was a racist. He also hated poor people. So, if you’re hired to build a bridge from one part of the city to another part with beautiful parks and outdoor spaces that you wanted to have whites and rich people use but not poor people, how would you do that?

If you build a bridge that uses traditional arches underneath with no top support, any vehicle can cross. However, if you build a bridge that has a maximum height allowed, then you can limit that types of vehicles that can cross the bridge. If you built the bridge low enough, then you can prevent buses from crossing the bridge. Buses that would be carrying poor people of color.

It’s just a bridge, how can it be racist? A bridge is just a thing. Something built by people. However, those people have biases and intentions. These are built into that technology. While A bridge may not be racist, this one IS because of the racism used to build the bridge.

If a bridge can have biases intentionally built into it, there is no doubt that software will have biases built into them. We’ve seen time an again that beauty algorithms where the AI didn’t like dark skinned women. In those cases the people building the training set of images had biases. The engineers didn’t like dark skinned women and didn’t include a significant amount of them in the training set.

Soap dispensers aren’t able to detect dark skinned hands, because the engineers working on them didn’t think of test the sensor on someone with dark skin.

 

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These aren’t intentional biases. It’d be difficult to imagine a group of engineers all sitting around the room saying, “wouldn’t it be me great if we prevent dark skinned people from properly washing their hands? MWahahahahah.” No that’s not what happened. What happened is that the QA team was made of people that look more like me. The dispenser worked perfectly for them, QA passed! This isn’t an intentional bias, but it’s a bias none the less. It’s called the availability bias. If the only people that are available look a certain way, you don’t think about people that aren’t immediately available.

Everyone does it. More people are aware of the fact that there are people different from them. For white people this is critical. It’s similar to when a white person writes an article about how racism has significantly declined in a major news paper.

It is time that organization recognize this and create teams to ensure that ethics and biases are considered when developing and selling novel technologies – or in the cases of bridges old technologies repurposed for modern uses.

Tech and Art

Last night I asked for a writing prompt, not for my blog, but for my planned creative writing stream on Twitch.tv. Instead of a fictional writing prompt, I got one requesting I write about the intersection of technology and art. This is a pretty interesting space to be honest as there are folks that are building crazy things for Burning Man, Soak in Oregon, and just for fun.

The laser reflecting on the windmill is pretty interesting. I haven’t see anything quite like this before. When I used to drive between Austin and Santa Fe on a regular basis the wind mills in east Texas, always got me excited, even when it was just the flashing light on the top. The elegance of the blades juxtaposed with the barren landscape was really a great site to behold.

This gif also brought to mind another Dutch technologist/artist though. This creator uses a form of machine evolution to create super interesting “animals” that move around on beaches without going into the ocean and that move around more efficiently.

A book I read a number of years ago, called “Design Driven Innovation”  talks about how using art along with an understanding of how people use objects allows a great deal of innovation in our products. What might seem useless today, such as a laser on a windmill may actually help pave the way for new energy transmission methodologies or perhaps another way to enhance the amount of energy a windmill actually creates.

I’ll close this with my thoughts about an event in Eindhoven, The Netherlands that I really loved. It was a Glow Festival, which really makes sense because it was a city large built upon the successes of Philips. It is a festival where the entire city center is turned into a series of light art exhibits. It combines the aesthetics of the old city, with modern lights. I really enjoyed it and if you’re living in Europe I strongly suggest you check it out!

Capitalism vs. Robots – which is more terrifying?

In an article that recently resurfaced on Reddit, Famed Astrophysicists Stephen Hawking argues that we should fear capitalism more than robots. I think the timing of this is somewhat interesting, being an election cycle and the two populist candidates are opposites in many regards especially in terms of Democratic Socialism vs. Crony Capitalism (Sanders v Trump). In the broader context of emerging technology this is important as well though, as many other technology leaders have expressed fear of AI, such as Elon Musk, while other leaders are running full steam ahead towards more and more automation.

Hawking isn’t the only person thinking about the economy and technology though. Warren Buffet just released Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report with some pretty stark warnings about the future of capitalism in action at the corporate level. Indicating that innovation does have a darkside. While he’s speaking as a manager, there are economists looking into this and in the book Second Machine age, the authors argue that the best is still to come, because man and machine work best together, not separately.

Unfortunately, this will only push the ceiling up on skills required for jobs, rather than expanding opportunities. A perfect example of this will be Uber. Being an Uber driver isn’t a difficult job because of skill requirements, but because it’s a boring job that is relatively tiring. Uber has been pushing down their prices over a multi-month/year process which will continue through the introduction of “Autonomous” Cars, or RobotCars. At this time a large number of low skilled workers will find themselves out of a job, including people I know and probably people you know. This has been Uber’s plan for a long time as they understand that people are the biggest costs and risk for the company. Especially in light of the mass shooting in Michigan.

Uber isn’t the only major company looking to replace workers like this. In fact, it’s likely that a lot of White Collar jobs are going to go this route as well, including in industries that notoriously relied on people that then made unethical decisions, such as the financial industry.  We’ve heard of High Frequency Trading, which is basically a set of algorithms to make decisions on buying and selling stocks based on microtrends. However, this is going to continue to expand into newer areas. It’s been well remarked that most brokers are no better than a coin flip (Black Swan; Drunkards Walk; Thinking, Fast and Slow; all reference this) so it is highly likely that algorithms will do better than people in picking winners and losers on the stock market. It’s also likely that those algorithms will have access to more data faster than any person could eve analyze and act upon.

This interaction between capitalism and automation creates huge risks for the economy. A few years ago, there was a “flash crash” which was basically caused by those HFT I mentioned above. As more and more portions of the financial industry come under the purview of robo-traders, these sorts of events are going to be more likely. These institutions still have pushed most of the risk to the public, while retaining the bulk of the profits from these robots.

As these trends continue across industries, the local optimization of companies to automate and create more robots is going to gradually push people out of jobs at a more and more rapid pace than new categories of jobs can be opened. I think it likely that will be likely that we’ll see more companies going the route of Uber. Using tools like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get processes started before they invest effort and energy into automating processes. Once they are shown to be successful, the effort to remove the human element will continually increase until those workers are out of a job. What we will eventually see is a white collar migratory worker going from one type of tech job to another only to be replaced by automation in the long run.

The impact to the economy in the long run and the human condition in the short term will be catastrophic as our current institutions are not designed to handle this sort of change in labor type. The incentives for this behavior has been in place for decades and have been pushing bad actors to be worse, such as the Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO price gouging dying patients, because the market could support it.