Silicon Collar - a book review

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 18, 2016
Vinnie Mirchandani has produced a thought provoking book on the impact of machines in the modern world. He poses important questions but doesn't always leave us with answers. Even so, this is an important addition to the discourse on 21st century technology impacts.

silicon collar
When Vinnie Mirchandani writes a book, you can be sure of two things: first it will be controversial in one sense or another, and second, it will be stuffed full of stories that support his primary thesis. Mirchandani's latest work, Silicon Collar - an optimistic perspective on humans, machines and jobs, (pre-order) falls squarely within the tradition he has set, but with something of a twist.

Optimism in a world of gloom

As the title implies, Mirchandani takes the view that the manner in which technology innovation is and/or will impact all our lives is or will be a net good and, contrary to the view of many observers, will bring with it a new age of employment that might be hard to imagine today, but will be exciting and full of promise.

Despite this optimism, Mirchandani is careful to balance his enthusiasm by outlining the theories of some of the leading pessimistic voices. While I remain somewhat skeptical about the overall 'good' impact, I am far less agin' where technology is taking us than I was when Mirchandani first started talking to me about this as a book topic in the early part of this year. I'll explain why later.

Silicon Collar neatly divides itself into three sections: Machines as Colleagues, Machines as Overlords? and Guiltless Automation and across 11 chapters. The book starts with a prologue - The Allure of Machines and ends with an epilogue - The Allure of the Human Touch. As a structure, this works well and those who prefer to dip in and out rather than follow the linear path of reading can readily take nuggets from anywhere that takes their fancy. That's what I did on a first pass before working my way through the 250 plus pages on offer.

The stories around the use of sensors and increased use of both advanced and predictive analytics in fields as different as medicine, sports and agriculture are of a kind you'd expect see in a book of this nature and very well documented. In doing so, Mirchandani is careful to point towards the historical heritage from which some of the newer technologies spring. He says of Pixar, the film production company:

These are modern day descendants of the Disney artists who, in 1937, created the first fully animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Xerox copying process had just been invented. The xerography machine in a dedicated room with conveyor belts had been the critical technology for many other animation classics that followed Snow White.

Those perspectives are important because anyone who reads modern media would be forgiven for thinking that many of the new technologies just fell out of the sky, when in reality, as Mirchandani often points out, they have taken decades to come to the point they are today.

Ripe for disruption?

In and amongst, Mirchandani is not afraid to point towards moribund industries and professions. Quoting our own Brian Sommer talking about the accounting profession for instance, he says:

Yet, institutional barriers still try to slow down ‘progress’ in this industry. For example, let’s look at continuous auditing. To an external auditor, continuous auditing could be a nightmare scenario. If such smart technology could check almost every transaction in near-real-time, why would you need an external auditor? If an external auditor had a technology that could audit every transaction, would the auditor be legally culpable for any missed fraud? Auditors have maintained for eons that fraud detection is not the purpose of an audit. That defense worked when all they did was sample a few transactions but that ‘out’ may be going away.

But that risk is nothing compared to the damage automated, continuous auditing could do the auditor’s business model. Many of these firms are designed around hiring piles of recent college graduates who will learn their clients’ businesses and accounting issues via the conduct of audit work. If systems do this work, would accountancies need all of these new graduates? No. Worse, without the billable hours that a bunch of cheap staff auditors generate, auditing firms would also need to rethink their pyramidal staffing/income models, training programs, and partner development tracks.

In that context, Sommer is ringing the doom bell that I have been quietly tinkling away at for over 10 years. And it only gets worse in Sommer's view. But rather than spoil the punchline I'll leave readers to go find that out for themselves. But I will say, change takes time and on that, I am in violent agreement with the book.

Closer to home, we can already see the impact of automation on the business models of the Indian heritage outsourcers. Buyers are demanding (and getting) more for less but while many mundane tasks can be automated, Mirchandani is circumspect about the longer term outcomes.

Some outsourcers are indeed preparing for this future. Wipro is using machine learning algorithms to help with its internal help desk support. The firm has now created an AI platform called HOLMES that uses computer algorithms to reduce human effort in many of its customers’ industries. Tata Consultancy Services is working on an AI platform called ignio to help build applications quickly and get more out of its infrastructure management capability. Infosys has announced a major investment in automation capabilities as well.

However, given how labor-intensive these firms are, such automation efforts will only have a tiny impact. A few good operations research experts could easily reduce the insane amount of travel endured by their staff.

The place of policy

For me, one of the most interesting yet troubling parts of the book centered on policy and the place of government in a world where the nature of work is undergoing important changes.

The book attempts to tackle important societal issues. As you'd expect, the changing nature of work is given heavy prominence coupled with the need for new types of skill such as data analysis and creative types across many industries.

Mirchandani discusses the topical and controversial question of a Universal Basic Income, something that was rejected in Switzerland but which has found favor at Y Combinator, the startup firm which encourages and funds very early stage innovation. He concludes with:

So, here is another set of policy questions to ponder: UBI or credits? Or should we use any funds set aside for either model to invest instead in rapid retraining programs that allow workers to transition to new skills to adjust to the previously discussed 24-second shot clock? How about investment in energy, health, and road infrastructure which will generate a new generation of jobs?

A glaring problem

The problem with the arguments that Mirchandani puts forward are that they are rooted in variations of the economic status quo, regardless of whether you are 'left' or 'right' leaning in your assessment of economic theory.

In that sense, Mirchandani doesn't consider alternatives to those theories, recusing himself on the grounds that he doesn't have a good answer to that or, the emerging question of ethics in technology.

Notice that I am posing questions for these societal and governmental matters. I am not arrogant enough to suggest I have many answers. I raise them because they merit vigorous discussion. I am a bit more specific when it comes to enterprise and personal perspectives. Let’s look next at enterprise considerations when it comes to automation decisions.

I get that and can respect that point of view. We are all rooted in our own reality and sometimes it is not easy to consider alternatives, however wild they may seem. Also, it is fair to say that some theories, like those posed at Evonomics or by Umair Haque are tough to parse and, for some, will appear downright alien. But that doesn't prevent them from being legitimate discourse in a world where the current narrative often appears sterile and I wish that Silicon Collar had opened up that debate beyond the well known thoughts of people like Warren Buffet.

Interestingly, and much earlier in the book, Mirchandani points to research by Denis Pombriant, a well known CRM analyst, who says that when you look at how economic downturns have occurred, it is almost always the result of a major problem with the financial markets and very little, if anything, to do with technology advances.

The glaring hole in these explanations points directly to the failure of governments of many stripes to provide the framework around which markets can operate efficiently but without the inherent dangers of stifling regulation.

Bizarrely in my mind, it's not a topic of widespread discussion in a year where we have already seen the UK vote to leave the EU and where there is the real possibility of the US experiencing its own version of Brexit in the form of electing Donald Trump as the next President.

Looking back and at current events, it is hard to position Brexit, or the possibility of a Trump presidency as anything other than massive protest votes against the status quo.

At the risk of jumping feet first into a bucket of political crap, I think that Silicon Collar could have delivered a knock out punch to his thesis by looking more closely at the role of government rather than extolling the reader to get off his or her proverbial backside and look at the world of opportunity.

The sad truth for many is that Mirchandani's vaunted world of opportunity is far from real in 2016. That was painfully obvious during my recent trip to Europe where the mood among the working population I met was far from rosy and gloomier still among those who do not have work. It is all good and well for Silicon Collar to reference the 'gig economy' of Uber, AirBnB et al, but it ain't going to happen any time soon across large parts of the world outside the huge cities.

Those in the UK who genuinely felt disadvantaged did the one thing they could do that was within their power and let elected officials know the 'sum of their fears.' The US electorate might follow suit. The fact this is giving rise to all sorts of economic gyrations matters little to those who have 'missed out' or who are on the brink of exhaustion from holding down multiple jobs. Those people want to be given hope and while the book points firmly in that direction, the impact outside the cognoscenti is barely perceptible, let along imaginable.

And finally...

Despite my wish for a stronger ending, Silicon Collar is definitely a book to enjoy with plenty to exercise the mind. The raft of anecdotes are skillfully crafted and easily digested, a trick that's hard to pull off in a business book. In particular, I liked the way Mirchandani pulled together the threads of man and machine from a creative standpoint, ending up with:

Societies evolve differently, and some are blessed with younger workforces than seen in Japan. Others, like the U.S., rely on immigration to keep their workforces vibrant. Every society, however, continues to blend traditional arts and crafts with modern production
and automation. Rug weavers in Turkey, Gaelic teachers in Ireland, glass blowers in Murano, Italy, Shakespearean theater around the world, artisan wares on sites like Etsy and Novice— humans cherish the past, even as we are surrounded by a growing number of machines.

Artisans in the midst of automation—mankind has a long history of cherishing both. We will never get tired of the human touch, no matter how imperfect it may seem compared to the work of machines. More importantly, when man and machine collaborate for excellence, people line up for blocks to pay tribute.

Yup, I can go with that but sincerely hope that as progress is made, and machines move into those numerous mundane and mind numbing tasks, that we end up with a society where the skewing of inequality is narrowed significantly.

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