This week: we’re on a break but we have something interesting in store for you, and it’s not just Mr Goxx the cryptocurrency trading hamster.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Futures 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
08:10 – Unlearn computers
Other stories we bring up
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Kai So what are we talking about?
Sandra Well, we could absolutely do the story on the hamster trading cryptocurrencies. So...
Kai Mr. Goxx?
Sandra Mr. Goxx, yes absolutely. The hamster that has been trading cryptocurrencies in a cage that's been rigged to automatically buy and sell tokens since about June this year.
Kai I feel this is rigged.
Sandra Every time this hamster walks over a certain area in its cage. There's an automatic trade either a buy or a sell, depending on what the hamster feels like.
Kai Yeah, and according to Business Insider, it's currently not only outperforming the S&P 500, but also Bitcoin itself, and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which has actually gone backwards in that short period.
Sandra So I think we've got another finfluencer on our hands, the hamster who could have a great career on TikTok or on YouTube.
Kai Live-streamed in 15 second instalments of chart-worthy hamster action.
Sandra Yeah, so Mr. Goxx, or we could have done that other story that's been doing the rounds.
Kai It is vaguely animal related that one, isn't it?
Sandra Yes, engineers having figured out how to cook 3D-printed chicken with lasers.
Kai Of course, not only would you 3D print your chicken, you would of course, also cook it with lasers, because we can.
Sandra Pretty much because we can. It's as close as we come to the Star Trek replicator. 3D print some chicken and then use a tiny laser to basically cook that chicken. But there's been some serious stories following on from the container shipping crisis that we spoke about last week. Nike and Costco have warned of severe product shortages and delays. They're both struggling because of the global supply chain crisis. Nike suffers as both production and delivery is impacted and likely to be impacted well into next year as it struggles with the shipping issues. Costco has, among other things, reimposed limits on toilet paper, but it's again struggling to ship goods to its shops, all following on from the container shipping crisis that we discussed at length last week.
Kai And there was also a story in CNN, reporting on US carmakers, who for quite a while now have battled a computer chip shortage. But they're apparently running out of all kinds of parts and raw materials right now, again related to the worldwide shipping container and logistics crisis, piling more problems on top of the already existing shortages, saying that this will cause the production of 7.7 million fewer cars globally this year than forecasted.
Sandra In other shortage news, there's also been a story about the world's biggest carbon removal plant having just opened. And as interesting as this technology is, so it's basically a big carbon capture plant, which gets carbon dioxide out of the air.
Kai And it's widely regarded as a future technology to actually battling climate change and the carbon emissions already in the atmosphere.
Sandra Unfortunately, the numbers are kind of stacked against this technology. In a year, the plant will offset only about three seconds worth of global emissions.
Kai And some quick math will tell you that you would need about 10.5 million of those plants to offset all global emissions with that technology alone. But even a few 100 of these plants might not actually make a big impact.
Sandra And that's why many experts think that at this point the technology is still too expensive and not really scalable in the next few decades to the extent that we would need to make a significant difference. But another one to keep an eye on and I'm sure we'll come back to this as we see further developments.
Kai And another interesting story comes from Iceland, which just this week has narrowly missed out on Europe's first female majority Parliament after a recount.
Sandra Yes indeed, a shame. The first story we had was that for the first time ever, Iceland has a female majority Parliament, then just a day later the news came that actually after a recount they just narrowly missed with 47.6% seats won by women. It's still a landmark achievement by the Icelandic parliament. And Iceland has long been considered a leader in this space and it's ranked as one of the most gender equal nations in the world. So congrats Iceland.
Kai But one of the weirdest stories comes straight from the Wall Street Journal. It's titled "Smartwatches track our health. Smart toilets aren't too far behind".
Sandra And we'll spare you the toilet puns.
Kai Speak for yourself. I will read out from the actual article. It says, "The next frontier of at-home health tracking is flush with data: the toilet". So researchers from Stanford University have developed a toilet that will monitor human waste product for health-related indicators, detecting things like pregnancy, diabetes, potentially COVID-19, and a range of other diseases and health-related problems. And it is interesting the technology with which that is achieved.
Sandra And it's not just sensors that analyse the waste, or fingerprinting technology, and it's not facial recognition technology. So you might need to read some more from the Wall Street Journal on this one.
Kai Yes, the researchers have "outfitted a toilet bowl with cameras and trained machine learning algorithm to analyse the waste against the diagnostic chart. Interestingly, to tell users apart the toilet has both a fingerprint scan when a person flushes and a scan of their anus's characteristics or an anal print". And that is a quote from the Wall Street Journal.
Sandra So researchers have your back...
Sandra On this one.
Kai Yes, there's a number of companies also working in this space. There's a lot of innovation going on with serious applications in hospital contexts, where rooms might be fitted out with these technologies to collect data on patients. But there's also companies promising applications for office or in-home use.
Sandra And this follows from stories that we've seen four or five years ago we were discussing the use of such sensor technology at big festivals across Europe where they were used to detect drugs so that festival organisers could set up facilities to ensure festival goers stay safe.
Kai So computing really is moving everywhere it seems. from your smartphone to your smartwatch, to soon be in your toilet. That shit's everywhere.
Sandra And we could have done all of these stories, but the University is on a break. Concession days, long weekend, semester break.
Kai So we'll keep it brief.
Sandra But speaking of computers everywhere, we do have something to tide you over.
Kai And that's our new podcast series. And it's actually really, really good,
Sandra We might be biased, but it's called The Unlearn Project, and it's our new series about changing common sense.
Kai And it's quite a different show to The Future, This Week where you know, we sit down and banter every week. This one is about those topics, ideas, concepts, where the world has changed without us even noticing.
Sandra Because learning new things is really difficult. And we do that on The Future, This Week, every week. But it's even harder to unlearn things, to let go of things we are sure we already know.
Kai So what we have for you is the intro episode to the new series which we are rebroadcasting here to take a look at unlearning computers and computing.
Enjoy. About a year ago, we came across this story from a tech company called kickstart they automated part of people's jobs to make their lives easier.
Sandra About a year ago, we came across this story from a tech company called Kickstarter, they automated part of people's jobs to make their lives easier.
Kai Yet surprisingly, instead of making them happier, their work turned out to be more stressful and less enjoyable.
Fred Benenson Suddenly, you know, somebody says, like, "oh, yeah, I guess the robot is getting to approve all the good projects," and then people just kinda sit there, you know, drinking their coffee. And they're like, "that's funny."
Sandra People at Kickstarter were as surprised as we were.
Kai Yeah, wasn't automation supposed to make all our lives easier?
Sandra Turns out the common wisdom that's held for ages, robots coming to do all the hard work, the heavy lifting…
Kai While we would get to do all the creative, fun and interesting work.
Sandra Turns out, that common wisdom is no longer true.
Kai Robots have all the fun and what we're left with is the hard stuff, the stressful stuff.
Sandra So actually, cognitive automation makes things harder.
Kai dun dun dun…
Sandra The robots are coming to make our jobs harder. We started wondering just how many other things that we take for granted that have actually changed and we haven't even realised.
Kai The answer is quite a few, and so we set out to find them.
Sandra Enter The Unlearn Project, our new podcast about changing common sense.
Kai It is about those topics, ideas, concepts, where the world has changed without us even noticing.
Sandra Like automation, making our jobs harder, not easier.
Kai It's not just about learning something. It's about something we all thought we knew but that is now no longer true.
Sandra It's about letting go of knowledge and ideas that no longer fit how the world works.
Kai It's about unlearning.
Sandra And we'll tackle many topics over the next episodes. Like why it's no longer true that large companies do not innovate and that their businesses will soon be disrupted by small firms.
Kai Size matters, and small is the new big.
Sandra Why the robots are coming to make our jobs harder.
Kai What music is for?
Sandra Yeah, even that's changed
Kai Why data is not the new oil, and why there is no such thing as the Internet.
Sandra And heaps more.
Kai There will be research and there will be people.
Sandra From CEOs, entrepreneurs and innovators, to Nobel laureates, rappers and diplomats, professors and rocket scientists. I'm Sandra, Peter.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer.
Sandra Welcome, to The Unlearn Project. Okay, so every decision we make is based on an understanding of how the world works. How we do business, the way we work, the way we live our lives, the way we record this podcast.
Kai And if the world changes, but our understanding doesn't, well, that's a bit of a problem, right? Actually quite a big problem, because then our decisions have unexpected outcomes, business strategies fail, and we miss out on stuff.
Sandra Everyone knows we need to learn new things but we often forget that we also need to let go of some of the things we thought we already knew. We need to unlearn, and that's much harder. It's much, much harder, because these are all things we think we know, they're common sense.
Kai And so when the world changes, we also have to change our common sense. And as it turns out, we live in times when lots of things are changing, and they usually have to do with technology. We hear all the time how artificial intelligence, algorithms and big data are changing the world in a big way.
Sandra Exactly. Technology is everywhere around us. It's in our pockets, on our wrists in our cars, in our houses, with us when we socialise, when we work, when we vote, even when we sleep. Computing is now everywhere.
Kai It absolutely is. But it didn't used to be.
Sandra Maybe then that's the first thing we should unlearn computers. What are they and what are they for?
Kai Yeah, because computers used to be on our desks, right? But now they're everywhere. And many of them don't even look like computers anymore.
Sandra Exactly. My phone, my watch, my car, my toothbrush, and soon my glasses, and they're no longer something we use.
Kai Well I do use my toothbrush.
Sandra Yeah, yeah, but they're no longer just the tool we use to accomplish a task like writing an email or editing a video. Computing is increasingly just there like GPS telling us where to go or Twitter deciding what I should read or Spotify telling me what I should listen to.
Kai Yep, true. Even my toothbrush is telling me when and how to brush my teeth.
Sandra We need to unlearn computers as tools. It's now algorithms that are everywhere and organise our lives. What loans we get, what jobs we can be considered for, and sometimes even how to do our jobs.
Kai Yeah, it's really no longer what we have computers do for us, it's what they decide for us.
Sandra And we're right in the middle of this. Many of the topics we will tackle in The Unlearn Project are a result of this shift.
Kai Yes, such as when automation makes our work harder.
Sandra But this is an intro episode, so shall we have a closer look at what unlearning actually looks like? And maybe we should use computers for this.
Kai And computers are a good example, because we've unlearned computers before. And while The Unlearn Project is not a history project, in this instance, it is worthwhile going back in time a bit because we have unlearned computers before, what they are and what they are for.
Sandra Yeah, remember, they used to be something only businesses had, and they had one, and they were the size of a room before PCs
Kai Or Macs
Sandra Here in our homes.
Kai So unlearn computer? Then maybe we should start at the beginning. Because, you know, they used to be people.
Sandra Like in that movie Hidden Figures, you know, about Katherine Johnson and the women at NASA?
Kai The early days at NASA.
Sandra Yeah, there's the scene
Kai Shame this is a podcast
Sandra Shame this is a podcast because there's this scene where Kevin Costner, who plays the head of the space task group or some such, asks, "What's the status on that computer?"
AUDIO OF KEVIN COSTNER What's the status on that computer?
Kai And he's told she's right behind you.
AUDIO OF KIMBERLY QUINN She's right behind you.
Sandra And as he turns, we see a woman, Katherine Johnson.
Kai Played by Taraji P. Henson.
Sandra Who was part of a small group of African American women mathematicians, computers, who helped put people in space by calculating launch windows and where they were going to land.
Kai So Katherine Johnson, the computer, she handles analytic geometry, and also she speaks.
Sandra And as the real life Katherine Johnson was fond of saying, the 50s and 60s was a time when computers wore skirts.
Kai So back in the 50s, computers used to be people who did mathematical calculations.
Sandra Well if we want to do this from the beginning, this goes a lot further back, in fact, all the way back to the hunt for Halley's comet. Back in 1705, astronomer Edmund Halley figured out that the comet would return and that the laws of gravity could actually predict precisely when.
Kai Yeah, but the problem was that those calculations would be way too much and would be way too complex for any single astronomer.
Sandra But in 1757, a French mathematician, a young astronomer and the mathematically gifted clockmaker's wife, this sounds like the beginning of a joke, worked together and figured out that it would actually come back the following year.
Kai Human computers
Sandra To be fair, they were slightly off and the comet came two days early, but that counted as very close back in 1757.
Kai Human computers: enter the women.
Sandra By the 19th century, some male scientists realised that hiring women could reduce the cost of calculations.
Kai So they powered everything from astronomy to war, and the race into space.
Sandra So computers back then were people, pretty much all women, and we spoke to one of them.
Sue Finley I'm so happy that you chose me. How did you find me? I go by Sue Finley, my doctor calls me Susan, things like that. But I go by Sue Finley, my business card says I'm a subsystem engineer.
Sandra And Sue's been at NASA for 64 years.
Sue Finley I went to work there before it became NASA, became NASA about a year and a half later, NASA was not founded yet when I first went to work at JPL.
Kai That is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
Sue Finley And I was hired as a computer. And it was actually my second job as a computer.
Sandra Sue was first hired in 1958, as a computer, an employee who calculated mathematical equations, such as rocket or spacecraft trajectories by hand.
Kai Computers being the term originally used for Katherine Johnson and her colleagues, much like typewriter, which used in the 19th century for professional typists.
Sandra And JPL had been using mostly female mathematicians as computers since the 1930s. And just like Katherine Johnson, Sue did all those calculations mainly by hand using slide rules, graph paper and desktop typewriter-sized machines.
Sue Finley And there were two of us that ran Friden calculators for our 40 thermodynamics engineers for a rocket company.
Sandra Sue is now 84 and she's still at NASA.
Kai How cool is that?
Sandra Well, not right now because of lockdown, she's working from home now.
Sue Finley So I've been there the whole time.
Sandra That makes her the longest working, longest serving woman at NASA.
Sue Finley They don't say it officially but nobody has ever argued with me.
Kai And there wasn't just one computer at NASA, right?
Sandra No, the computer room was a really busy place in the 50s.
Sue Finley It was fun, I liked it. There were, I think, maybe 20 of us in the room, all working on screenings and all working for engineers who would write up the equations that they wanted the answers to.
Kai But by 1960, something was starting to change, hardware computers arrived on the scene.
Sue Finley We had a small computer just for us called the 1620 and it took cards, punch cards, that we punched ourselves and printed out on a typewriter. And that it was a computer that we could code Fortran, we coded Fortran.
Sandra By the late 1960s computers were no longer people, but machines.
Sue Finley And then we had big computers, big UNIVAC computers and we didn't punch the cards anymore.
Kai So the Universal Automatic Computer One, or UNIVAC One, was a new commercial data processing computer. And that replaced the old punch card machines.
Sandra And the role of the people who used to do the calculations also changed. It was now again, mostly for women, to operate those machines.
Sue Finley That was enough to say, okay, you're an engineer now. So I was in an engineer, I was then doing programming and I was then classified as an engineer, officially.
Sandra It was the dawn of the computer age.
Kai Viva la revolución!
Sue Finley And I didn't realise at the time, of course, how significant it was, and how many other computers there were probably around the world, at least in the United States. They were very significant. I found out later.
Kai And she probably didn't see it because people had to first unlearn what a computer was.
Sandra Computers, no longer people, but machines, big, big machines.
Kai And we would be remiss here if we didn't mention this CSIR Mk 1.
Sandra A very,
Kai Very big machine,
Sandra Especially since we have a historian across the hallway.
Sebastian Boell Hello, my name is Sebastian Boell.
Kai Because Australia was actually at the forefront of computing once and the CSIR Mk 1 was built right here on the grounds of the University of Sydney.
Sebastian Boell So CSIR Mk 1 was Australia's first computer and depending on how you count, it was the first computer in the world. It was first switched on in November 1949. CSIRAC is also the only computer from the first generation that is still surviving to this day.
Kai That's Sebastian, our colleague from across the hallway.
Sebastian Boell Hello, my name is Sebastian Boell and I'm the Director of the Business and Labour History Group at The University of Sydney Business School.
Kai And he's also on the editorial board for the Pearcey Foundation.
Sebastian Boell Trevor Pearcey built the first computer in Australia, together with Maston Beard he designed to CSIR Mk 1 later renamed to CSIRAC.
Kai And this thing was big.
Sebastian Boell If you go to Sciencework in Melbourne, you will see that CSIRAC takes about 40 square metres of office space. And if you could lift it, you would realise it weighs about two tonnes. CSIRAC was a momentous achievement, it was 500 times faster than the average mechanical calculator at the time.
Sandra Which is quite slow by today's standards. I heard Genevieve Bell in a talk put it in today's terms, and she pointed out that it would basically take 4 million CSIRACs to replace her mobile phone, which would require most of the electricity in New South Wales, and most of the landmass too, but nonetheless…
Sebastian Boell It was built as a scientific instrument. So it was used, for example, to find the centre of our galaxy, to do the calculations for the first skyscraper in Melbourne. And by the way, it was the first computer in the world that played music.
Kai So to set another historical record straight, computer music started here at Sydney Uni not a half a decade later at Bell Labs as everyone believes.
Sebastian Boell So one of the programmers on CSIRAC, Geoff Hill, also was a very talented musician. And he programmed the speakers of the computer, which was used at a time to hear if a program is in a loop or it's not running properly, but he programmed the speakers to actually play notes and music.
Kai And there's a terrific story about Geoff Hill inviting young women over to, you know, hear the computer play music.
Sandra Of course this young software engineer having programmed the computer to play music for the first time, would invite young ladies over to the lab to hear it.
Kai So also the first use of a computer as a pickup device.
Sebastian Boell We have an Australian historian Paul Doornbusch, who has done extensive work on CSIRACs music. He even managed to recreate the original music that CSIRAC was playing in 1950.
Sandra Hang on, Geoff Hill was picking up girls with that?
Kai No probably with this. But to be clear, the original music was never recorded because music was not an authorised activity, but more like a parlour trick, never publicly acknowledged.
Sandra Today, we don't think twice about playing music on computers, we have them in our pockets and in our homes and offices, music is just there whenever and wherever we want it. But playing music on a computer back then was unimaginable. But we are getting ahead of ourselves with computers playing music. The point here is that computers then were still seen as just really fancy calculators, they perform computations, and space measurements and building specifications.
Kai And while some started experimenting with these machines, for most people, it was really hard to see how computers could ever be more than just glorified calculators.
Sandra Computers would be able to do much more, but people first had to let go of the idea that they were calculators before computers could go on to change the way we did business.
Kai So back to our story.
Sandra Where were we?
Kai In the 1960s, Sue was seeing computers starts to pop up everywhere around the world.
Sandra But just like her, no one quite knew how significant they would be or even really what to do with them. First, the world had to unlearn computers as merely calculators to make room for them to become true business machines, cue in educational marketing videos.
AUDIO The new equipment does all 1,500 in 43 minutes, and what a job it does. Not only fast and accurate billing with all specifications, but an immediate breakdown of price, cost, discount and salesman’s commission on each item. The whole Profit and Loss picture at a glance, but the big payoff comes later. Because remember the machine has stored all the facts you fed into it
Sandra Again, shame this is a podcast. What you heard this from a 1960s film promoting the use of computers in business. In low definition, black and white, that is white man in black suits with female assistants and the computer the size of a Tokyo apartment. The computer went from doing mere calculations to transaction processing, data storage and creating business reports.
AUDIO There were many examples of improved customer service through use of the computer. As Macklin put it, you're bound to have a competitive advantage if your computer can help a customer solve a problem or save money. This is your chicken salad sandwich, coffee, thanks very much.
Sandra More white men in black suits with female assistants. Luckily, we've unlearned that one.
Kai Yeah, but the important bit here is the term "the computer," the computer was still singular. Businesses have one computer which would fill an entire room. And the people doing something with the computer was special operators, they would feed it with requests, and they would print out reports that would then be handed to the managers.
Sandra And the more managers became convinced of the usefulness of the computer, the more businesses would buy a computer.
Kai So that's our first big unlearn, right?
Sandra Right. As we go from human computers to mechanical ones, we have to let go of the idea that computers were just big calculators.
Kai Yeah, so the computer would not just replace those 20 human computers doing calculations in the computer room, as Sue told us, they would now do all these other things for businesses.
Sandra Yeah, they wouldn't just add up sales figures but keep records of all their transactions and create all these detailed reports for managers to use. But it's still just a business computer run by special operators.
Kai So over time, companies got used to having a business computer. But an even bigger shift was just around the corner. The computer would finally escaped the computer room and make its way onto ordinary people's desks.
Audio of Steve Jobs Today, one year after Lisa, we are introducing the third industry milestone product. Macintosh.
Kai January 24 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the Apple Macintosh personal computer at the company's annual shareholder meeting
Sandra And shame this is a podcast as the rest of the world was introduced to the Apple Macintosh personal computer the same year with an iconic ad that ran during the Super Bowl.
Kai We see people marching through a tube
Sandra Grey zombie people marching.
Kai They all look the same. On the screen, a man is talking, big brother, representing the control of the technology.
Sandra And running down the corridor is a young woman who bursts into the room.
Kai The only piece of colour with red shorts.
Sandra She swings the hammer and there's a giant explosion.
Kai The screen comes tumbling down, unleashing dust over the masses sitting.
AUDIO On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh, and you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984.
Sandra Incidentally, this was also the moment the world unlearned the Super Bowl as just the sports event. It became this must see media event with secret cinematic ads specifically made for the Super Bowl and it became this giant platform for like really interesting advertising.
Kai Of course, Apple wasn't the only company doing PCs. IBM had started shipping out PCs in 1981. And sales exceeded IBM's expectations by as much as 800%. So this really took off, they shipped 40,000 PCs a month at some point. And IBM estimated that 50 to 70% of all PCs sold in retail stores went to the home and not to the office. But to be fair, IBM's PC was still more or less a clunky to use business machine.
Sandra But Apple saw the real promise of the personal computer; reimagined the computer to be used by everyone. And their 1984 ad played on this, on George Orwell's novel 1984. He said computers would be the tools of big governments and corporations and they'd be like big brother and control us.
Kai But Steve Jobs believed that the computer should empower the individual
Sandra A computer that everyone could use.
Kai And so the computer really became a personal computer. Microsoft released Windows for PCs. And from there PCs took the world by storm and eventually, pretty much everyone had a computer.
Sandra This was a really big shift. For this to happen, the world had to unlearn computers once again. We all had to unlearn computers as special business machines run by special operators. They were something that now anyone,
Kai Really in the office and at home, managers and teenagers alike,
Sandra And not just to keep track of things but to create things, to communicate, and to have fun. Remember Solitaire and Minesweeper? The computer was now a tool for everyone, not just equipment for business. And with computers now on everybody's desk, we discovered new ways of working, of communicating and of expressing ourselves.
Kai This was a huge shift and it's now difficult to understand just how hard it was for people to see this. Remember, Sue, not even people like Gordon Moore,
Sandra He of Moore's Law fame,
Kai And also the chairman and CEO of Intel, the guys who made the chips, the microprocessors for all these PCs. Even he couldn't see it.
Sandra He used to joke that "if you asked me in 1980, I would have missed the PC, I didn't see much future for it. I thought automobiles would be a bigger market for microprocessors. But the IBM PC kind of hit it off with the public."
Kai And Gordon Moore admitted that he didn't even buy a home PC until sometime in the late 80s.
Sandra So one big unlearn was for serious business managers to unlearn that computers were machinery run by special operators. And that now it was okay for them to have one on their desk.
Kai And of course, a few years later, it was really important to always have the latest model on your desk. So computers became popular, and then they took over people's homes. They became networked, portable, you have laptops and notebooks.
Sandra Well, not quite right. My first laptop was a five kilogram brick, I couldn't swing over my shoulder without losing my balance.
Kai Yeah, but eventually they did become portable and they also kept getting smaller. And not just smaller, but also faster.
Sandra Yeah, yeah, Moore's law,
Kai But that's for another episode, right?
Sandra And then came the year 2007, the year that would change tech forever.
Audio of Steve Jobs Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. And we are calling it iPhone. Today, today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.
Sandra That day was January 9, 2007 and that was Steve Jobs, and with the first iPhone he did reinvent the phone and made it a computer.
Kai So in the 1980s the computer had left the computer room and now the computer started going everywhere. Mobile devices, home devices, personal devices, cloud,
Sandra Yes, your watch, your car, your camera, your doorbell, your famous toothbrush, your TV, your Alexa, your HomePod.
Kai Not the fridge though, because that smart fridge never really arrived.
Sandra So the computer goes almost everywhere and computing starts becoming invisible. We started caring less and less that our computers our tools, were getting an upgrade. New Office, new macOS, new Windows,
Kai Yeah, remember when we used to know exactly when they were coming out, time and date and we used to be first in line. But now we don't even notice. We don't know, we don't even care when there's something new.
AUDIO OF KARA SWISHER Microsoft is also launching its new Windows 11 this week, remember how that used to be a big deal?
Sandra That was Kara Swisher on Pivot, and as we're recording this episode, the launch of the new Windows operating system is going to largely unnoticed.
Kai Is it actually out? It's windows 12, isn't it? I have no idea.
Sandra No idea. And Shira Ovide, The New York Times tech reporter also observed that when Windows 8 came out in 2012, her professional life that year was completely dominated by it. And this year, much like everybody else, she all but missed it. And she points out just how important this is. Windows being no big deal, that's huge. Because as she remarks technology went from a succession of Big Bang moments to something so meshed into our lives that we often don't notice it, technology has become no big deal. And that's a very big deal.
Kai "It’s no longer strictly the shiny new object that comes out of a box every once in a while. Technology is all around us all the time, and it’s perfectly normal," she notes.
Sandra And that's kind of where we started. Computers no longer just the tool we use to accomplish a task like writing an email or editing a video. Computing, just there, perfectly normal, like GPS deciding the best route to drive and Facebook deciding what's important to pay attention, to or Spotify and what music to listen to.
Kai Yeah, and my toothbrush,
Sandra Telling you when and how to brush your teeth. So now we need to unlearn computers, again, unlearn computers as our personal tools. It's now algorithms that are everywhere, and that organise our lives here.
Kai Yeah, but it's more than that, right? It's no longer just what we can do with them, but what they decide for us.
Sandra And that reminds me when I spoke to Rachel botsman, a couple of years ago, she observed her then three year-old daughter, Grace, interacting with Alexa.
Kai And Alexa is Amazon's smart speaker.
Rachel Botsman I did a very quick experiment with my daughter and she's three and a half. And I said to her, "meet Alexa, you can do anything you want with her." And first question was, "is she like Siri?" And what was interesting was, you know, I think it's because she's half British, that she just asked so many questions about the weather. Like we knew it was not going to rain that day, and then the songs, like they're testing it. But then what frightened me was by day two, she realised she could order things. She thought it was magic that she could use her voice. And then the next day, a massive box of blueberries arrived. And then the next day was what worried me because she loves picking her clothes. And she stood in front of Alexa and said, "what should I wear today?"
Sandra So what Rachel was seeing was a shift with Grace trusting Alexa with her big decisions, pink or sparkly dress.
Rachel Botsman This, for me, marks a transition point that we're going through at lightning speed is that my trust in technology won't be that it does something but that it decides something for us.
Sandra What Rachel was observing is that increasingly, it's not us using the machine to do something, like play the music from Frozen over and over again. But the machine deciding what we should do and when we should do it. She believes that Alexa and Siri and Google Home will make more and more decisions for us. Everything from whether we should have Mac & Cheese or a healthy dinner, to what the perfect gift is for a birthday, or even when and whom we should date.
Kai And as computers get more and more data on us, they also get to make more decisions about us, you know, from influencing and nudging us in certain directions like what to buy or whom to date, to the bigger things like deciding what loan we qualify for, where we get to work, and they even get to tell us how to do our jobs.
Sandra And that's a long way from Sue's job as a computer at NASA doing calculations. As computers were replaced by machines, we first had to unlearn computers as calculators and accept that they were instead something for business. And it became common sense that they're equipment for running business operations, not just number crunching machines for engineers.
Kai And then they left the computer room and made their way onto people's desks and into their home. And when that happens, we had to unlearn that the computer is something that only belongs to a business. And it became common sense that computers are these individual tools for communicating, for creating things.
Sandra And finally, as computers left our offices and our homes and went everywhere, we now need to unlearn that they are just tools, data powered algorithms now know an increasing amount about us. So common sense needs to become that we are no longer just using them, but they increasingly govern our lives.
Kai And in the process, they change the way the word works in quite significant ways.
Sandra And that's what The Unlearn Project is about.
Kai With computing now everywhere, many other things have also changed.
Sandra We set out to look for all the things we take for granted. Automation will make our work easier, music is something to listen to, large companies are sluggish and can't innovate, data is the new oil. All the things we thought we knew for sure, but which have changed and where common sense hasn't quite caught up with how the new world works.
Kai It's about letting go of all those ideas,
Sandra And many more,
Kai Those ideas that no longer fit how the world works, just like that computers are there for us to use not to use us.
Sandra So here's how we're going to do it. First, in each episode, we will find the topic, an idea, where we need to update our thinking or change our common sense.
Kai Yeah, like the internet, data, automation, music,
Megan Yeah, music do music.
Kai That's Megan our sound editor. And these are all things that are happening now, as the world is changing around us.
Sandra Next, much like with computing, we will figure out how the world has changed, and what's important, what matters about it.
Kai And we'll figure out how common wisdom has to change.
Sandra And finally, we will bring in people to help us trace what's changed.
Kai Much like we did with Sue and Sebastian.
Sandra And we'll try to keep it simple. We will tell our guests to keep it free of jargon and acronyms. But of course, if we do it, we'll just call them technical terms.
Kai Like sociomateriality.
Megan Oi, keep it clean, no jargon.
Sandra Just cut that bit. More like cognitive automation.
Kai All of this is much easier said than done. I mean, unlearning things, not the jargon.
Sandra Unlearning is hard, and if you don't believe us take it from a Nobel Prize winner who's been trying to change common sense in his field for a long while now.
Richard Thaler I've been at this for 40 years. Richard Thaler, I'm a professor at the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago,
Kai And the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Although, perhaps he's most famous for his appearance in the Hollywood movie, The Big Short with Selena Gomez, where he explained synthetic CDOs.
Sandra Okay, I think you're leaving out Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling.
Kai Yeah, okay.
Sandra But for the past four decades, Richard has been trying to change people's minds about the core premise of economics, which is that individuals make choices by optimising. Individuals are rational and respond to incentives.
Kai Behold, homo economicus!
Sandra And this model has dominated economics and has an incredible influence still, and for over four decades Richard's work has proven that people depart from these fictional creatures in economic models. They suffer from self control problems and have all kinds of emotions that affect their behaviour.
Kai So unlearn homo economicus?
Richard Thaler It's amusing that people are missing from economic theory, and even the word doesn't appear. They talk about agents, and agents can be consumers, they could be producers, people are factors of production. Does that sound like humans?
Sandra Bringing humans into the picture? You'd think that would be easy, but unlearning is hard, especially for economists who build their careers on homo economicus. So Richard's advice?
Richard Thaler The strategy was corrupt the youth. And Danny Kahneman and I, with another colleague of ours, Colin Camerer, started a tradition in 1994, of having a summer camp, two weeks for the best graduate students from around the world. And most of the great behavioural economists working today are graduates of that summer camp.
Kai Okay, so we don't have two Nobel Prize winners.
Sandra Yeah, Danny Kahneman got one too,
Kai But we still want to help people unlearn. So, no unlearn camps, but instead, The Unlearn Project.
Sandra So join us for The Unlearn Project, our new podcast about changing common sense. I'm Sandra Peter.
Kai And I'm Kai Riemer.
Sandra And before we go, next time on The Unlearn Project: the story that is really the story of how we started The Unlearn Project in the first place.
Kai Actually, let's do that after the credits like in a Marvel movie.
Sandra Our sound editor was Megan "now say it with a bit more feeling than Nicolas Cage please" Wedge. And this episode and additional nerdy stuff was written by Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer. We had helped with bits and pieces from the entire SBI team. Jacqueline Hole, Steven Sommer, Sarah Akkari, Nicolette Axiak and Kishi Pan, and Pat Norman from the library. He also got his PhD, congrats. The CSIRAC music was reconstructed by Professor Paul Doornbusch who also set the historical record straight. And if you're wondering about the music you're hearing right now it's one of the Bach Goldberg variations, a public domain recording made possible via a Kickstarter project, and used by us because it's beautiful, and more importantly, free. If you want to know a little more about the topics and research in our podcasts or for a full nerd out, our shownotes are available sbi.sydney.edu.au/unlearn. The Unlearn Project is a production of Sydney Business Insights, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and WeChat. You can subscribe, like or leave us a positive rating wherever you get your podcasts.
Sandra On the next episode of The Unlearn Project: the effects of automation and how work at tech companies can become tedious and unpleasant as employees are left wrestling with only difficult decisions all day long. Which can come as a real surprise, like, all of a sudden…
Fred Benenson Suddenly, you know, somebody says, like, "Oh, yeah, I guess the robot is getting to approve all the good projects." And then people just kind of sit there, you know, drinking their coffee. And they're like, "That's funny…"
Kai Rideshare drivers who have a hard time relating to their algorithmic managers,
Sandra Airline pilots, who now require much more training and experience, not less, to fly highly automated planes.
Kai Lawyers, who no longer do as much of the kind of document-based work that used to be a key training ground for them.
Sandra We're looking at why automation and artificial intelligence will often make work more difficult, more tedious, stressful, and overall, less enjoyable. AI is coming to make your job,
Sandra Much harder.
Kai Next time on The Unlearn Project .
Sandra We hope you have enjoyed the first episode of The Unlearn Project and we hope you Subscribe to The Unlearn Project for more episodes wherever you get your podcasts.
Kai Do it now. Okay, do it now.
Sandra And we will see you back soon here on The Future, This Week.
Kai After our break. That's all we have time for today. Thanks for listening.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Disclaimer This was The Future, This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.