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Op/Ed

Is the AI tech boom going to blow up in our faces?

(EDITORIAL) Ironically, the answer to the question, “Will Skynet kill us all?” lies not in the eternal, shiny and chrome future, but in history. Is AI about to blow up in our faces?

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Tech is on the up and up

It feels almost redundant to say we live in an age of unprecedented technological growth. I mean, look at this stuff. That’s just since 2010 – throughout the world, and not just the privileged world, tech has been in a state of exponential improvement for generations.

Some people are pretty concerned about that.

I don’t blame them. Neither does Dr. Guru Banavar, who wrote a superb article on the subject in the Harvard Business Review. He’s Chief Science Officer for Cognitive Computing at IBM, so one imagines he’d know.

On the other hand, he’s the head of cognitive computing at IBM. He’s kind of got a dog in this hunt. Some other really smart people – Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, for example, three dudes to whom it often pays to listen – are saying the opposite.

*Deep breath*

They’re wrong.

*Pause*

OK, I don’t hear Microsoft office drones or Musk-branded actual drones coming to get me. But maybe they just blue-screened and need a reboot before they march down my street like Cybermen and arrest me for heresy, so let’s get serious.

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Coal, steel, and concrete

Ironically, the answer to the question, “Will Skynet kill us all?” lies not in the eternal, shiny and chrome future, but in history. When I said tech has been exponentially improving for generations, it wasn’t hyperbole. It was math. Human life has changed more in the last 300 years than in the twenty thousand beforehand, when we figured out putting seeds in the ground makes them do stuff. The Industrial Revolution never really ended. The combination of Newton’s rigor and Watt’s engineering that remade the mostly agrarian world with coal and steel and concrete, is still remaking the world, still mostly with coal and steel and concrete.

More importantly, a chilling amount of recent history has been about managing, and too often failing to manage, the consequences of those changes, whether economic, environmental, or terribly human.

Worse before it gets better

AI is going to be another big change. Industrial Revolution big? Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not an oracle. But I’m putting my money behind Dr. Banavar rather than the Three Wise Geeks, because this time we have an unprecedented advantage: 300 years of our ancestors screwing up. London had two million people in it before it had sewers. That led directly, and unsurprisingly, to the germ theory of disease, which in turn led to not dying of tooth decay. I am in favor of not dying of tooth decay.

The only reason AI is a thing is because the great pre-AI paradigm shift was an immeasurably vast increase in the availability of data. That means that this time, we have a chance of seeing the consequences coming. Thanks both to pro-AI scholars like Dr. Banavar and AI skeptics like Dr. Hawking, the implementation of AI could be something new: a conscious revolution.

After all, we were afraid of this change decades before it came.

Alan Turing, founding father of computer science took on the philosophical tangles of AI all of two years after the first stored-program computer was created, and  Hubert Dreyfus – not to mention HAL and Superman – addressed the fears and failures of artificial intelligence when it was still a tall ask to get a computer in one room.

Or will we triumph?

When Thomas Newcomen set his piston bouncing, he had no idea he’d started the Industrial Revolution. He was just trying to dry out a mine. There wasn’t an angel on his shoulder whispering “Hey, before you turn on your engine, have you considered it might cause a cholera outbreak in London and the subsequent founding of epidemiology?” We’ve got the angel, in the form of a wealth of opinions on what machine learning should and should not do.  We’ve traced the lines of dominoes back from the triumphs and tragedies of world history. AI represents a chance at Revolution Mark 2, change guided from “go” by human interests.

Though who knows? Maybe I’m with the Cybermen.

#AI

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Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

Op/Ed

Is the cloud on the verge of death?

(EDITORIAL) There is a theory floating around that the cloud is on the verge of death. Turns out, there’s merit for this line of thought…

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the cloud

The sky is falling.

At least according to technologist, Viktor Charypar, who proclaimed “the cloud,” as a large-scale approach to computing, is about to nosedive.

To say the least, that’s a surprise.

At this point, it’s safe to call cloud-based computing the dominant paradigm. Those who make their living through that paradigm can be forgiven for dropping their collective monocle, spitting out their collective tea, and having a good old scoff at such scandalous tomfoolery as “the end of the cloud is coming.” I know I did.

But I kept reading, because it is literally my job to do the reading. And you know something?

Charypar is right.

The reason “end of the cloud” has so many metaphorical monocles floating in cups of tea is that tech in general is running full tilt at cloud-based solutions. More and more companies are moving more and more functionality out of consumer hardware and into corporate owned resources, which those corporations then make available as a service.

It’s easy to see why. The previous generation of tech had what they figured was an insoluble problem: you can only stuff so much processing power in a plastic rectangle before it keels over or bursts into flames.

The fix was literally out of the box. Take it out, went the wisdom. Move your computing into remote services, big networks of big iron optimized to meet your needs. That moves processing power and economic power in the same direction: away from the user and toward the service provider. In a sense, it was a return to the very, very old days of personal computing, when “computer” meant the vast and heaving beast in the basement and users just got terminals, access points where they could play with data owned and operated by someone else. Trust me. I’m writing this on a Chromebook.

As Charypar points out, like any tech solution, the cloud paradigm comes with advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are obvious: thanks to the Chromebook, this article has gone through three formats on two machines, and I never even had to plug anything in.

Disadvantages? The cloud isn’t infinitely scalable. As tech standards rise – SD to HD, 1080 to 4K – we’re forcing bigger data through tighter tubes. That means everything gets slower, dumber, and uglier. Especially with net neutrality under threat, that’s a serious possibility in the immediate future.

It’s also insecure.

Old one-liner: freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. The Internet fixed that – then promptly no-backsied us with the streaming paradigm. Now, access to data is limited to those who can store and stream it. How much of your entertainment comes from, say, Netflix, or Spotify, or Steam? Because if those services stop working tomorrow, and they could, whatever you’ve invested in them goes too. If their security fails – not unprecedented – you’re the one exposed. They’ve got the data. You’re just paying to play with it.

So, you quite rightly ask, what’s the fix?

BitTorrent.

The soft, splashy clink you just heard was the few remaining metaphorical monocles splashing into caffeinated beverages all over this great country. Someone fetch smelling salts; the entirety of Silicon Valley just got the vapors.

We aren’t advocating that we all grab the digital equivalent of a cutlass and a parrot and return to the scandalous days of piracy. But, as Charypar points out, whatever else you might say about peer-to-peer data transfer, and there’s plenty to say, it worked. It’s proven tech. Back in the day, you could grab a whole season of Deadwood in an hour. I mean, so I heard. In Bible study.

More recently, blockchain has repeatedly demonstrated that peer-to-peer tech solutions are widely applicable and solve many of the problems associated with a cloud-based middleman.

Peer-to-peer solutions like BitTorrent and blockchain are as close to infinitely scalable as technology allows. The processing power grows organically with the network, because the computers on the network are doing the work. Peer-to-peer is secure, too. I’d tell you to ask a cryptocurrency miner, but that’s the point: there’s no way to find one.

Charypar’s argument is that cloud-based computing is approaching its end because it never was an end in itself. It was the first half of the real goal: distributed computing.

Apps built peer-to-peer, sharing data and processing power between users directly, backed with blockchain or other encryption solutions, could represent what the cloud keeps demonstrating it can’t: a safe, stable digital world.

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Op/Ed

How a TED Talk on procrastination actually changed my perspective

(EDITORIAL) If procrastination is a problem for you, at least bookmark this editorial to revisit within the month.

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Procrastination is a huge challenge

Did you know that there are PhDs studying procrastination and that there are experts on the topic? People that have devoted their careers to understanding the science and psychology behind why it is our human nature to put things off?

I was talking with my dad on the phone today, and it turns out that we both randomly wanted to talk about a topic we have never discussed – procrastination (we had put it off long enough – see what I did there?). He ordered a book months ago on the topic that he finally read, and I watched a TED Talk on it over the weekend, both of which stuck with us and altered our perspective slightly. He learned about the roots of his specific type of procrastination, and while sharing it with me, I realized that because of the way he raised me (giving me ample room to row my own boat), I am absolutely not a procrastinator.

Or am I?

First things first, watch this:

It’s 15 minutes, and what follows won’t make sense unless you watch the entire talk (don’t procrastinate, you’re already here):

How this altered my perspective… at first

I really loved Tim Urban’s take on procrastination, positing that the instant gratification monkey often derails us, but the panic monster gets us back on track when it is required. The simplicity of the message is such that anyone can imagine the monkey upstairs and tell it to shut the hell up if they want to.

Like I said, Urban’s talk stuck with me, which is rare – I’m more of a watch something, instantly digest, and move on type. But I kept thinking of this. And it upset me. Not because I had to acknowledge my personal feelings toward procrastination, but because something was missing.

I spent a great deal of time these past few days considering why I was so upset about this – who cares? It’s a video, move on, Lani. But I can’t.

At first, I concluded that I can’t relate to Urban’s theory because I’m not a procrastinator. In fact, I’m very list oriented.

I’m a classic over-achiever, I’m that kid in class that finished every test before any student was halfway through. I’m not exaggerating, ask anyone on FB that I went to school with. So of course I’m not a procrastinator.

But that wasn’t right, I’m not NOT a procrastinator

But that’s wrong. Everyone procrastinates – some people put off big life decisions, others minutiae, but everyone does it. So the next conclusion that I came to is that Urban’s theory rubbed me the wrong way because I am a procrastinator, but also a workaholic. Hear me out.

You see, I procrastinate constantly. In fact, I’m currently procrastinating from finalizing a speech I’m giving next month, by writing this editorial. Yes, next month, that’s what is on my agenda during this exact hour. But I’m not tackling that – this editorial isn’t even on my to do list. I’ve gone rogue.

And this is what rubbed me the wrong way about Urban’s otherwise flawless theory: Procrastination doesn’t necessarily mean that I go play Xbox or decide to read an entire Wikipedia entry about the Boston Marathon, then click on another link and another and another, and fall down a useless rabbit hole for fun.

For me, procrastination means consciously altering the order of prioritized tasks or adding new (easier)tasks. And they’re always work (I already told you I’m a workaholic), not entertainment or useless.

So today, instead of finalizing a speech, I created content here. Instead of scrubbing the email list this morning, I scheduled out a series of emailers. Rather than repoint a list of URLs that I committed to changing today, I hand-wrote a flowchart of rules for a massive and unruly jobs group we operate. See? The instant gratification monkey didn’t say “hey, let’s go pet the cats and learn how to play guitar and do a cartwheel,” my instant gratification monkey said, “these things are all important, but this work item would be easier or more interesting right now than the other and I’m lazy efficient.”

So my takeaways? I have three:

  1. A speaker/writer has done a good job if you’re digesting their works long after they’re fully consumed (whether you agree or disagree with their premise).
  2. Procrastination is nuanced, and people much smarter than I have dedicated their lives to studying it. I can’t fully understand it after one gd Ted Talk, so I’ll continue pondering. Again, proof that Urban did a great job.
  3. Procrastination is different for every person. My personal method of procrastinating is doing easier work tasks first (not meandering around the web aimlessly).

Next time I am off task, I can fight my version of the instant gratification monkey and put myself back on the tracks.

After watching the video, I urge you to consider what procrastination is for you.

What does procrastination look like for you? Does your monkey tell you to re-prioritize, clean your desk, or learn about wombats via YouTube?

#Procrastination

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Op/Ed

How dropping everything to unlock a door for a buyer damages the profession, increases safety risks

The real estate profession is unique in that everyone is on call, but until better practices are put into place, the profession will suffer.

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Consider the following scenario:

“Welcome to Burger House may I take your order?”
“I’d like a Big House Burger, a large sweet tea and I’d like to buy 1915 Main St.”
“Great would you like a home warranty with that?”
“No. Just the house.”
“Will you be paying cash or getting a mortgage?”
“Cash.”
“Your total is $196,521 please pull forward to window 1 to pay. Your food and keys are at window 2.”

Well now that’s a silly scenario. Who buys a house at a fast food drive through? That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

Not really, if you consider how buyers call in on properties and expect real estate agents to “serve them up” a house sometimes with no notice, no appointment, and very little exchange of basic information. Here’s what a typical phone call is like to a real estate agent:

“Hello this is Jane. How may I help you?”
“I’d like to see 123 Main Street.”
“Okay great. The list price for that is $125,000. What is your name?”
“John. When can I see it?”
“Okay John and in case we are disconnected what is the best phone number for you?”
“I am in front of the house now I’d like to see it as soon as possible.”
“Well that house is occupied and we are supposed to give the owner 24 hours notice. Can you tell me a little about what you’re looking for?”
“It doesn’t look occupied. I walked around the outside and I don’t think anyone lives here now.”
“Actually it is occupied. The owner still lives there. I need to call and request an appointment. Even if it’s vacant we still do need an appointment. Have you been looking a long time or did you just start looking?”
“I have been looking a few months. When can you get here?”
“Okay I need to call to set it up. Are you working with another agent?”
“No I just call the listing agent when I see something. I’d really like to get in now. I only have an hour so can you get here quickly?”
“Let me call the seller John and get approval. I need to clear it with him first. What’s your last name?”
“Are you coming now to show it to me or not? I don’t have time to answer all these questions.”

I hear the buyer’s frustration – he wants an appointment right now

He’s not willing to give up personal information in exchange for an appointment. But the agent has a stranger on the phone who wants to meet right now, we don’t know if the person is qualified to buy – or even his last name.

The agent taking the call is trained to screen buyers to make sure (1) they are qualified to buy and (2) they are not working with another agent. This is standard practice in the real estate business. But the caller is having none of the vetting process – he just wants to see the house and see it immediately. See the disconnect here?

The next step the caller typically takes is to ask the agent, “Do you want to sell the house or not? Because I want to buy this house.” He hasn’t seen it yet, we don’t know if he can financially afford it, yet he wants the agent to jump in the car and rush over to open the door.

It’s a scare tactic. The buyer thinks agents are so desperate to make a sale they will risk their own personal safety – and waste of time – versus not sell a house.

Pulling the “safety” card

Whoa – yes I just pulled the “safety” card. To those who are not in this industry who may be reading this, answer this question: “If it was your wife or mother or little brother who was being asked to hop in the car, to meet a stranger at an empty house, perhaps at 10 am or 8 pm, would you be so quick to judge?”

Because that is exactly what real estate agents are asked to do every single day.

Get a call, meet a stranger, maybe sell the house. Maybe we lose more than a few hours of our time. Maybe we lose our lives. I know it’s a sobering thought – but in what other industry does the phone ring, and the person on the other end run to meet a stranger outside the office without screening them for the ability and motivation to buy? It happens every day in real estate.

Just meet them at the office, right?

You may be thinking, so meet them at the office and then take them out. Spend a week in this business and you will realize just how hard that is to implement. The house may be on the east side of town and your office is on the west side. The buyer doesn’t want to drive to the office when he’s already in front of the house.

You’re already in the car when he calls and it’s just a few minutes to run over to the property anyway. Who wants to inconvenience the buyer and the agent who are both on the other side of town from the office?

Those are not even the best arguments for not going back to the office to meet the buyer. The best arguments come from the buyers themselves, who are trained or conditioned NOT to treat real estate agents as true professionals. We’re just door openers, people who get buyers access to the house.

Try quizzing a buyer about his wants or needs or motivations and you’ll find that many buyers don’t think they have to answer questions at all. They are so used to agents just making the appointment that when an agent tries to ask questions so he or she can advise and counsel that person, they resist.

“Just get me in. I just want to see the house,” is the mantra.

How practitioners can change this game

Things won’t change until agents stop playing the game and won’t make the appointment until meeting in person at the office, or at least answering a few basic questions. I would love to see every agent stop dropping everything to show a house to a buyer “just in town a few hours” on the chance the buyer is “the one” who buys the property.

Yes it’s a gamble, but in 15 years of doing this, I find it’s rarely the buyer who throws a tantrum and insists in instant access who is “the one.”

Buyers who are serious will answer our screening questions. They understand that we are professionals who need appointments to show them houses. And they respect our time and brains in the counseling/advising process. Those are the buyers we want to work with. Those are the buyers who deserve our time and attention. Not the buyers who pitch a fit when they call an agent’s cell phone late Friday night and get no answer. Not the buyers who are sitting in front of a home and demand an agent show up within five minutes.

I wish every agent working with buyers would read this and agree to stop caving in to buyer demands to instant access to houses and agents.

But if agents deny access, unfortunately the consumer will just pick up the phone and call the next agent on the list. And chances are that one agent on the list will be hungry enough, desperate enough, or just naive enough, to hop in the car and show the house.

Until we train our agents and enforce an office policy that discourages “Pop Tart” agents, consumer behavior won’t change.

This editorial was originally published in March of 2015.

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