This week: work week wishes, fax-free futures, and AI art. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week:
Other stories we bring up:
Future bites / short stories:
Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak.
Send us your news ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: We'd like to advise that the following program contains real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Intro: This is The Future, This week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start!
Sandra: Today on The Future, This Week: work week wishes, tax free futures, and AI art. I'm Sandra Peter, Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, my professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai: Our first article comes from the Spectator in the UK and it's titled "John McDonald's right - the four-day week could work". Look first of all, John McDonnell is a Labour politician in the UK and we leave it at that. But the article written by Rory Sutherland, who is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy the advertising agency in the UK, and also an avid TED speaker.
Sandra: Yes and we absolutely love his TED talks. We'll include them in the show notes, and you can listen to Rory tell the story of how the King of Prussia got the potato to be accepted as an alternative vegetable. Or his proposed alternative plans for how to improve the Eurostar. Rather than shaving time off the trip maybe hiring supermodels to walk the length of the train, and people will be asking for the trains to be slowed down rather than sped up.
Kai: And we have barely started the podcast and we're already digressing, because this one is actually about his ideas for the four-day work week. So, working not seven days, not six days, not five days, but four days which would leave three days for leisure which sounds outrageous. Why would we give people that much leisure? But he puts a whole new spin on this, gives it a different take.
Sandra: So he says that we're actually not asking the right question. If it's so vital that people spend more time at work, which is now being solved by us working five days a week.
Kai: And many of us working long hours. Lots of us have in their contracts 37, 38 or 40 hours. But in many professions while that exists on paper, the reality is much different. People spending 50, 60, in some professions like consulting often 70 hours in a work week.
Sandra: So what Rory is pointing out is that we are encouraging people who are very experienced to leave the workforce several years earlier than it would be absolutely necessary. And that five years less spent in retirement could amount to as much as 20 years of working four days a week.
Kai: So he goes on to say that not only does the UK, and for that matter other countries like Australia or the US, have a rampant inequality of wealth, but also an inequality of leisure. And it is not just that the inequality exists between the well off and the not so well-off, but that it exists between old and young and middle-aged people. So, the take on work-life balance that Rory has is not that we fail to have work-life balance because we work long hours during the day or during the week, but that there is a work life balance over a person's lifetime.
Sandra: So the view that Rory is encouraging us to take is to think about the fact that the elderly and the very young have most of the leisure gains, but that they are not distributed equally across our lifetime, but rather in the middle. In our most productive years, we actually spend most of our time working rather than distributing that more equally. We currently spend our 20s going to university doing advanced studies, and we retire in our early sixties or mid 60s whilst we could still actually enjoy productive years at work.
Kai: So, on the one hand there's an incentive to prolong education and the early years of leisure. And there's also movement to shuffle people out of the workforce, early retirement. And then people live for 20, 30 years or sometimes longer doing nothing. While in-between, especially couples with children, work long hours and struggle just to make ends meet. So, there's a real issue that people in their 30s and 40s literally working their backsides off in order to just stay afloat. And all for then dropping out of the workforce, often losing all sense of purpose, and dropping into retirement where people have to basically reinvent themselves. And he says that's not how it needs to be. If we all collectively decided to do things differently, we could have a much nicer work life that is actually more productive and more enjoyable. And a little bit longer.
Sandra: So one of the questions we need to ask ourselves if we are to answer whether we could or could not go to a four-day work week is where does the work week come from anyway? The article goes back to the 1930s, but we can take it back to the Industrial Revolution.
Kai: Indeed it goes back much further because, as Rory said, the six-day week was invented by God basically. You know, who proclaimed that the seventh day is for rest and for worship.
Sandra: And that's held for quite a long time. During the Industrial Revolution, we had six-day work weeks.
Kai: With the church and religion obviously advocating to have one day off. And as Rory points out, or he gives all credit to Henry Ford then for the invention of the five-day week as an ingenious idea.
Sandra: Ford actually realised that a two-day break would allow people to spend the money that they earn on using the invention that he was selling.
Kai: The car basically. And so, this is what gave us the weekend as we know it, even though the idea of a weekend is much older than that.
Sandra: Interestingly, and we looked this up, the earliest recorded use of the word weekend was in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries. And it said, "in Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week's work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at so-and-so". It took a while from the late 1870s to the early nineteen hundreds for the weekend to become two full days rather than half a day on Saturday and a full day on Sunday. And the two-day weekend actually got cemented during the Great Depression when shorter hours were considered a way to actually compensate for the fact that there was lack of work. There was rampant unemployment so reducing the number of days that people would work was seen as a good way to combat this. So, almost 100 years later we've still got the five-day work week even though in 1965 the prediction was that Americans will be working 14-hour weeks by the year 2000. And very famously in 1928, John Maynard Keynes said that technological advancement would bring the work week down to 15 hours within 100 years. Well, we're very close to that 100-year prediction, and we're not any closer to working 15 hours a week.
Kai: It would be the case if technology hadn't given corporations and their administrations ingenious new ways to invent more and more work for their staff in the name of compliance and risk. But we're digressing again. So what Rory points out is that there's actually good sense to consider turning the weekend into a three-day affair. Maybe adding Friday which incidentally in German is called Freitag, which means 'free day'. So, the idea being that that day actually lives up to its name.
Sandra: And interestingly, there is a lot of both anecdotal and scientific evidence to show that may be getting to a four-day work week has productivity benefits. It actually improves well-being, improves relationships, improves innovation, and so on and so forth. But then the obvious question comes, if this is such a good idea why doesn't it come about?
Kai: Rory points out that this is a problem of coordination, or as we would say collective action. Because it is very hard for individuals to just do it by themselves. So even for certain institutions to start doing it when everyone else is doing it a different way. Because it takes a culture, it takes a norm shift, it takes new routines. Retail, public transport, even television and entertainment. So many things are tying in with the two-day weekend. All of this would have to slowly change for this to become a reality more broadly.
Sandra: If we were to ask for flexible hours on the Friday, or to work less on Fridays or not at all, the perception would be one of laziness not one of a desire to increase productivity over the remaining days.
Kai: But we did a little more digging and we found an interesting article in The Conversation in July which points to an interesting experiment done by a company in New Zealand. Perpetual Guardian, which manages trusts and wills so it's a professional services firm, who have engaged in an eight-week trial whereby they gave their employees and teams the opportunity to do exactly that. Work for four days a week. They didn't just pronounce Friday a day off, but they allowed people to work for four days and had teams analyse their work patterns and then work out a schedule whereby each individual would work for only four out of the normal five working days. They came up with some really interesting results.
Sandra: What the experiment showed was that in this particular case, employees working only four-day weeks felt better about the job that they were doing. Were more engaged in the job that they were doing, and reported lower levels of stress, reported that they perceived to have about the work life balance and their productivity seemed not to suffer at all.
Kai: So the company, we should point it allowed, employees to go to a four-day work week at full pay. So they were still paid the equivalent of a five-day work week. And it turns out because productivity and creativity in all of this increased that the output actually didn't drop, and people counterintuitively also reported less demands on their work. So they saw a really significant improvement in their work patterns and also in their output. Such that the company will actually roll this out full time and for good, going to a four-day work week. And what is significant about this in the context of the other story is that it might actually pay off for certain companies to go to a four-day work week, even though society might not have embraced the concept more broadly. And that just spending more time at work doesn't necessarily amount to more concentrated work. And the article also has a little dig at the open plan office and the distractions, and that having people spend less time in these often disruptive and unproductive environments increased their output and concentration. Having less people in those spaces as people started working less.
Sandra: And to me this is a good way to start changing the mythology that we have around having to be there at the office all the time, and being productive, and being seen to work.
Kai: What we call presentism.
Sandra: And that this is only achievable if you are in the office at least eight hours a day, five days a week. And incidentally, that might also change the mythology around retirement, around this idea that retirement is something to look forward to. And that of the many transitions in life, this is the greatest one, where you get to not work at all.
Kai: The mythology around retirement as a kind of relief from the work that is onerous, that is put such a burden on us. So if we made work less of a burden, more enjoyable than the story around retirement could change as well.
Sandra: And let's not forget, retirement only came about because the types of work that we used to do were very physically demanding, very physically challenging. So by the time you reach your 50s or 60s you were physically unable to work anymore and there needed to be some way for the society to still support you even though you were unable to work. But I'm reminded here of a conversation with Ian Hickie, who's the director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, who was saying that actually the best way to improve health would be to abolish the idea of retirement altogether. He wasn't arguing that we should stay in the same job and continue in that job until we die. But rather have a number of careers and work quite flexibly. So maybe three days a week, maybe two days a week as we get older. But that the fact that the health of people deteriorates very, very quickly after we retire. A lot of studies in the UK and in France have consistently shown that once people move into retirement, their physical health suffers and also their mental health suffers because there is increasingly a lack of connection, a lack of challenge. They are moving away from their social networks.
Kai: And not everyone manages to successfully reinvent themselves.
Sandra: So, these things are absolutely fundamental to our wellbeing actually come from a world of work. And finding a way to have a work-life balance over our lifetimes is the best way to go about doing this.
Kai: And today it's going to be a reasonably short podcast because turns out Sandra is already implementing the four-day work week.
Sandra: Yes, I am off early today. It's actually been a three-and-a-half-day work week.
Kai: Sandra is sitting on her packed luggage, going to Hong Kong later in the day. And we're coming to our next story which is something that we have done in our fourth ever episode on the 17th of March 2017. Fax machines. Not exactly the future of business but we're not advocating for more fax machines here.
Sandra: So this story comes from the Guardian, and it's looking at the UK health system and in particular the National Healthcare System in Leeds that still has three hundred and forty five fax machines.
Kai: This is across seven teaching hospitals, 18000 staff but those three hundred and forty five fax machines are creating problems.
Sandra: So quite often on this podcast we talk about artificial intelligence as the thing that is changing the health care system, but there is another technology that is about this prevalent artificial intelligence in the National Healthcare System, both in the UK and still to a certain extent in Australia, and that is fax machines.
Kai: So fax machines are interesting. Actually, when I teach my introductory class in our undergraduate program, I use the fax machine as part of a scenario. And every year I'm asking who does not know what a fax machine is, and every year more and more hands are going up in the air. So fax machines, for those listeners who do not know, is this ancient technology that your grandparents in this case presumably used to use. And health professionals in the UK Australia and around the world still use. It's technology that when it was introduced amounted to magic. You could feed a piece of paper with writing on it, into the machine. The machine would basically eat up the paper. You would dial a phone number off someone who had a similar magical machine. And then the writing would appear on a sheet of paper at the other end. And this is of course pre email. So, way before internet and other forms of communication have made transmittal of text just an everyday taken for granted thing.
Sandra: But now we do have e-mail. And indeed, that was part of how these researchers figured out that the National Health System in the UK has eight thousand fax machines, was by sending them faxes that asked them to email back to a certain email address the physical address of the fax machine they had received that piece of paper.
Kai: So eight thousand is what they estimate, and it might even be more. And you might ask, why are we still using fax machines when there are clearly more straightforward, more modern, more contemporary solutions to achieving the same aim, which is transmit text.
Sandra: Clearly the survival of the fax machine is not due to the lack of alternatives.
Kai: No. And before we come to the real reason that still exists, let us point out some of the problems that this creates. And the article lists a few. The most important one in the health system is that faxes are really a technology that doesn't integrate well with anything else. And a fax machine has to be monitored by a person to see when something appears on the machine. In the health system, where we often have important, sometimes life or death, information that are being transmitted - test results, requests for tests - a fax machine that is left unattended can create real problems. And it pointed out one fax machine sitting on a cupboard which would regularly have its transmissions disappear behind the cupboard, only to be found months and months later which can create new problems. But a fax machine is also not auditable. Can't really store the faxes. You don't have records in the same place. And of course it is only black and white, so regularly coloured pictures transmitted via fax have to be received via email, which delays processes and creates all kinds of broken communications.
Sandra: But there is one advantage to these fax machines, which has actually helped keep them where they are for a very long time. Which is that they are surprisingly secure. The information that you send via fax is actually much harder to intercept as it's being sent than the ubiquitous email or any other messaging solutions that we have available today.
Kai: Faxes are also robust. They just work and importantly, they are convenient. Especially for its main users, which is doctors. Who just take a piece of paper, feed it into the fax machine and then don't have to worry about it. And that's also a reason why fax machines have largely prevailed, because for this powerful group of users in the health system, the fax machine is just something that they're used to it's something that works. You don't change a system that isn't broken. And because it's so much part of their work routine, they have resisted the adoption of new technologies.
Sandra: But in Australia, that seems to be on the verge of big change. A recent article titled "Rest in peace, the fax: successful secure messaging trials solve final problems heralding tax free future for health care", reports on the Australian Digital Health Agencies trials that are looking at secure messaging systems that would allow the sharing of patient information and would allow the widescale replacement of fax machines which still exist in the Australian healthcare system. It seems that the problems have been solved and the proof of concept trials were all successful, so providers will have an alternative to replace these ubiquitous fax machines.
Kai: And this becomes more and more important in the health care system. On the one hand because of increasing needs for compliance and auditing. So the need to integrate all communication into centralised databases. But, more importantly as we're moving towards more integrated health systems and e-patient records and the exchange of information between not only hospital departments across different institutions, hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, health insurance providers, fax machines pretty much sit outside of a system that would enable this. So, this is an important infrastructure issue as we push for more e-health solutions, it is our infrastructure - the more mundane devices use by the professionals in the system - that have to play catch up. Which points to the age-old system that we're seeing everywhere in innovation and new technology roll out - say artificial intelligence, for example. We see a lot of showcase studies of what AI or machine learning, we should say deep learning, can do in spotting cancerous cells in MRI images, in finding patterns in documents. What is holding back those solutions is the often abysmal state of affairs when it comes to data quality and data integration. So, as we're moving to integrated data systems which would enable more machine learning to actually improve some of those back-end processes, these moves at cutting edge innovation can only be enabled if we pay more attention to the mundane infrastructure that underpin those systems.
Sandra: So I think this is the time to have a look at a couple of short stories.
Kai: Our future bytes.
Sandra: So I've got one this week from Quartz, titled "Coffee shops around the world are starting to look at the same". The question is, the same as what?
Kai: Well, the same as coffee shops everywhere else.
Sandra: But it turns out, it's not coffee shops everywhere else. It's actually all coffee shops are starting to look like Brooklyn. New York coffee shops.
Kai: Or so they say, because obviously this is a US centric story. Maybe it's actually Surry Hills coffee shops, or inner-city Melbourne.
Sandra: Which is pretty much the point of this article that all these coffee shops now are starting to look exactly the same. The reclaimed wood, potted plants, exposed brickwork, exposed light bulbs. These sparsely, yet beautifully decorated, luxury minimalist spaces, the article points out, are popping up not only in places like Australia and the US and New Zealand, but also in places like Mumbai or in Kuala Lumpur or indeed in Antero, Kazakhstan. To make the point the article actually includes a video where the interior of such coffee shops from around the world. And you really could not tell where they were.
Kai: But you can probably guess how this phenomenon came about. Hash tag latte art on Instagram.
Sandra: Well turns out that this generic coffee shop aesthetic comes about because this is the one that makes for the best Instagram pictures, because it's clean sparse. Allowing it to be a backdrop to that beautiful latte that you are photographing, to the lone laptop that is on the table.
Kai: The smashed avo.
Sandra: The ray of light that comes in through the skylight or the big windows. Which, by the way, all of these coffee shops have.
Kai: The soy milk, pomegranate laced granola muesli.
Sandra: But indeed it's interesting that's something as ubiquitous as a coffee shop, which you'd think would come in every flavour, has actually become increasingly the same. To cater for a trend that actually has nothing to do with the purpose of these businesses.
Kai: What is interesting for me about this is that globalisation is often talked about in terms of the rise of global brands. So, you can go to whatever city in the world, you'll find your Starbucks, you'll find your Gap, you'll find your Zara. But here's a phenomenon that has actually spread via social media largely independently, because it's small boutique corner coffee shops in all places of the world that all of a sudden all look the same. Even though there's no corporation coordinating that look and feel through a global franchise.
Sandra: And probably if I didn't have a flight to catch, we could look at other phenomena, such as street art which has also become slightly more uniform over the years. Because again, it has to cater to the square format that is easily visible on small screen. Let's not forget these minimalist aesthetics are actually easy to see in a small format on a screen, so they become sparse but at the same time quite striking.
Kai: But it is also a little sad. Because as you are embarking to go to Hong Kong, when you send your picture tomorrow having latte, you could be anywhere in the world because the picture will actually look nothing like Hong Kong. You might as well be down the road here in Newtown.
Sandra: Challenge accepted.
Kai: There you go. So, here's my future bite it for today. And it concerns AI, and our listeners will probably have heard of this story. We're picking an article from the New York Times, "AI art at Christie's sells for four hundred thirty two thousand five hundred US dollars".
Sandra: Ok so this has been labelled in all the news outlets as artificial intelligence art. But is it?
Kai: So an AI creating an artwork, and this one the first to be professionally auctioned off. So, Christie's actually expected this to fetch between seven and ten thousand dollars, but a bidding war ensued. And the successful bidder actually put down a bid off three hundred fifty thousand dollars plus fees. That makes it over four hundred thousand. Now why? I mean to us this is obvious bullshit. But why would anyone pay so much money for something that many have criticised as not being original artwork. Because remember what is happening here is that a couple of AI algorithms that face each other, called generative adversarial networks, created this artwork. So just as an update, one AI creates an artwork and another one trained on a body of data, existing artwork, checks whether this looks anything like a human artwork. When it says no, the other one tries again. No, tries again. No, tries again. Until...
Sandra: Until it sells at Christie's.
Kai: Exactly. And people have pointed out this is nothing original because all it does, it works off whatever existing artwork looks like. The picture, to me, doesn't even look particularly inspiring.
Sandra: We know you're not an art critic.
Kai: No I'm not. But the point here is there's no skill involved. This is just a machine randomly shooting colours and shapes on to a digital canvas until another network says yeah that would pass.
Sandra: What you're forgetting is that we're in the middle of the AI hype. Maybe on our way to the trough of disillusionment.
Kai: Well, we could certainly take this as a counter indicator.
Sandra: And we know that if you're in Silicon Valley, or if you're a start-up, putting the word 'AI' will add the few million dollars to whatever it is you're selling anyway.
Kai: Well, in this case four hundred thousand. So, is this just lack of understanding of AI, or presumably a novelty factor? Because this was the first one.
Sandra: Kai, I'm afraid it's just bullshit.
Kai: And speaking of AI bullshit, we have something that we've meant to share with our listeners for quite a while. And we bring it to you in our segment on Robot of the week.
Sandra: Our Robot of the week is called Inspirobot. We'll include the link in the show notes. And Inspirobot confesses to being an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.
Kai: This is the literary inspirational quote AI version of the artwork generator that we've just discussed. This thing was trained on a large body of text of inspirational quotes. And it will now on the push of a button generate these quotes for you. And Sandra and I, as we speak.
Sandra: Will read out a few pearls of wisdom from Inspirobot.
Kai: That we're generating.
Sandra: As the AI gives them to us on the spot.
Kai: So, "Only when you seek the consequences of insight will you be face to face with illusions".
Sandra: Boy that's deep. I've got a good one. "Confusion: as good as it gets".
Kai: Which basically sums up this whole thing, but I have a few more. I actually need to click a couple more times because the last ones I got, I can't really read out on air. Not if we don't want this podcast to be R rated.
Sandra: Here I can do one. And by the way they also give you inspirational images to go with it. Here's one off a couple of people walking across this beautiful landscape, and the quote is "Your friends are great". So Kai, again.
Kai: "If you really seek courage, be ready to undress yourself". There you go. That's a little on the edge.
Sandra: While not as deep as "Developarise your hermit".
Kai: I think we should end on this one Sandra, "Don't hide the fact that you are excellent".
Sandra: Kai, from my AI to yours, "With insane respect comes insane conversation".
Kai: And that is really all we have time for today.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak.
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