We set out to unlearn old wisdoms and discover new ones, starting with computers.
When the world changes, we also need to change our common sense. And as it turns out we live in a time when lots of things change, and many of them have to do with technology. Computing is now everywhere. But it didn’t use to be. So maybe the first thing to unlearn is computers: what they are and what they are for. From human computers to algorithms, we are no longer just using them, they increasingly govern our lives. A human computer still working at NASA, a trust expert and a Nobel Prize winner and a historian weigh in.
Join Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer on the latest episode of The Unlearn Project.
The interesting people we spoke with
Sue Finley is a Subsystem Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). She has worked at JPL since 1958 in multiple roles starting as a human computer and has no plans to retire soon. Her recent missions include the New Horizons flyby of Pluto and the Juno investigation of Jupiter. Sue currently works on JPL’s contributions to the NASA Deep Space Network, a global collection of satellites for tracking spacecraft.
Sebastian Boell is the Director of the Business and Labour History Group at the University of Sydney Business School. His research draws from his multi-disciplinary training and focusses on the long-term consequences of technology, the use of technology for remote work (telework); conducting literature searches and analysis; and investigating fundamental concepts in information systems and information science.
Rachel Botsman is a trust expert, author and lecturer at Oxford University. She is passionate about teaching people how to think differently and challenge ideas around trust, humility and integrity.
Rachel is the Trust Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and author of Who Can You Trust?.
Professor Richard H. Thaler was awarded the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He is the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioural Science and Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author of the best-selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Thaler studies behavioural economics and finance as well as the psychology of decision-making which lies in the gap between economics and psychology. He investigates the implications of relaxing the standard economic assumption that everyone in the economy is rational and selfish, instead entertaining the possibility that some of the agents in the economy are sometimes human.
We’d also like to thank Professor Paul Doornbusch from the Australian College of the Arts for his resources on the history of CSIRAC in Australia and Dr Pat Norman from the University of Sydney Library for his research on the history of computing.
Links for the curious
Fred Benenson’s article on automation at Kickstarter
The computer scene from Hidden Figures
The gendered history of human computers from the Smithsonian
Timeline of computer history from the Computer History Museum
The history of CSIRAC at the University of Sydney
The Business and Labour History Group at the University of Sydney Business School
CSIRAC at Scienceworks in Melbourne
Paul Doornbusch’s 2004 journal article on the music of CSIRAC in the Computer Music Journal
Doug McCann and Peter Thorne’s 2000 book on CSIRAC
Genevieve Bell’s 2017 Boyer Lecture at the ABC
Paul Doornbusch’s recreated CSIRAC music and how Australia played the world’s first music on a computer
The computer comes to marketing promotional film from 1960
Steve Jobs introducing the Apple Macintosh in 1984
Apple’s 1984 Superbowl ad for the Mac
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs
Intel and the story of Moore’s Law
Gordon Moore on missing the PC in CNET
Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone in 2007
Kara Swisher on her podcast Pivot discussing Windows 11
Shira Ovide’s New York Times article on Windows 11 not being a big deal
Our podcast with Rachel Botsman on the trust shift
Rachel Botsman’s New York Times article on children interacting with smart speakers
You can follow The Unlearn Project on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Podcast Addict, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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You should also check out our weekly podcast The Future, This Week unpacking the news that’s changing the future of business.
Is there something you think we need to unlearn? Send your ideas to email@example.com. We read your emails.
Music by Cinephonix and the Open Goldberg Variations
This transcript is the product of an artificial intelligence - human collaboration. Any mistakes are the human's fault. (Just saying. Accurately yours, AI)
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.
Sandra 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.