Why Automation is Taking Your Job

Robot Worker

Do you do know the difference between administrative work and gruntwork? Administrative work primarily consists of entering data and maintaining records, a task that doesn’t require decision making as much as it does following directions. Gruntwork is often tedious, repetitive, and lacks glamour, but still requires at least a small amount of skill or decision-making ability. Computers can only successfully replace one type of worker we just mentioned, which means if you work an administrative job, prepare for unemployment.

The Problem with Admin Work

DMV Logo

I admit my recent interaction at the California DMV inspired this post. I’m not writing this to pick on the DMV; it was just the perfect catalyst to begin a discussion about the impact of automation in the workforce.  My particular experience happens to be the perfect example of problems plaguing administrative work, and are the driving forces behind corporations pushing out more employees in favor of artificial intelligence and automated kiosks.

Humans tend to be okay with a lack of perfection, and when it comes to administrative work, that’s a problem. When someone calls someone else a “perfectionist,” it usually carries a negative connotation with it, implying a certain amount of annoyance with their inability to let things slide between the cracks. When your job primarily consists of maintaining and updating of records, which administration jobs do, organizations strive for perfection; something humans can’t deliver.

While computers will refuse to move to the next step of a process without proper verification, humans tend to find ways to complete processes that they shouldn’t always complete. In my case, I wanted to change the address on a drivers license that I had recently lost. A process that started smoothly, but went south because of a common problem when dealing with humans – Improper Verification

Improper Verification

Checklist

The first step in all administrative work is verification for eligibility. Whether you’re ordering food, calling into customer service, or applying for a car loan, there’s always some form of verification. McDonald’s takes your payment before preparing your food, agents verify your identity before discussing confidential information, and financiers run your credit before giving you a loan. All of the previously mentioned actions serve as verification of eligibility. The DMV is no different.

As a patron of the DMV, I had followed all the verification steps required to speak to a window agent.

– I checked in at the front desk.

– I completed the form to get my confirmation number.

– I returned to the front to get my service number.

– I waited patiently for my number to be called.

When they called my number, I approached the counter, the agent asked for my printed paperwork and began processing the request without asking any questions.

Everything appeared to be going smoothly as the final paperwork began printing, and after confirming its accuracy, I signed it. Then the agent finally asks, “what were you changing on your license?” “My address,” I replied. After quickly checking the address on my previous license, she explains it’s impossible to change my address to without a piece of mail displaying my new address.

I wondered how this could happen. There were plenty of opportunities for someone to catch a mistake in the verification process.

– There was a human at the door, who I explained to in detail the purpose of my visit. They handed me a form with checkboxes that could verify the documentation requirements, but didn’t ask about or mention that I needed any of them.

– There was another person at the testing center who I specifically called over to my kiosk to ask about my situation. They explained the need for me to select “replacement” from the drop-down menu to address the situation accurately, generated my confirmation number, and moved me along.

– Then there was the window agent, who didn’t ask any questions until the final step of the interaction. Upon realizing the error, I was sure I would be handed back my paperwork and told to return when I had the proper documentation. Instead, they reverted the information on the form to my old address and completed the request. There’s only one way this could happen – Inadequate Training

Inadequate Training

If I were on a computer, this would have never happened. A web designer would have placed a checkbox next to the change of address field that would have required me to upload the required number of documents (PDF or JPEG) to the website before continuing to the next step. Instead, a government employee just agreed to send my government ID to an outdated address, with obsolete information, well-knowing the requirements for this kind of document. I had just completed a process in a way that was detrimental to myself and the State of California. How?

As with all large organizations, a lack of a scalable training solution is most likely the culprit. Properly training employees is an expensive endeavor that doesn’t produce an objective return on investment dollars, and it is impossible to scale without serious investment. Taking the previous factors into consideration, it’s easy to see why organizations consider replacing employees with machines. They have a fixed cost of operation, accurately perform their tasks regardless of emotional factors, and have a positive effect on the company’s bottom line.

As someone who works at a company that specializes in digital learning solutions for situations like these, I was interested in seeing how poorly the system was constructed. The easiest way to confirm a lack of employee training is with the third problem that arises from humans performing administrative work –  Dissemination of Misinformation

Dissemination of Misinformation

To rectify the situation, I went home and did some research on the California DMV’s website, which wasn’t overly specific about the process, but provided me with most of what I needed. I knew I needed address verification documents, and since I was told that a leasing agreement would work, I made the poor assumption one document would do the trick. I then jumped by back in my car to do the unthinkable, make a second trip to the DMV in a single day. This time I was going with the intention of understanding what methods are available to fix this situation.

Upon arrival, I stopped at the same checkpoint designed to provide the first line of verification. After explaining my situation in detail again, the employee did a very noble thing, admitted they didn’t know the answer but committed to finding one for me. Great. They left for about five minutes, and while still in view, I saw them have a lengthy conversation with a person who seemed like they were very knowledgeable. They returned with a particular set of instructions:

– Return to the specific window where you were helped [because they had previously taken my money]

– Have them void the application

– Resubmit the application

I was surprised by the confidence in the solution, and I walked right over to window 27 to have it done. When I reached the window, it was a different story. I handed the agent the instructions, and they immediately seemed frustrated. They asked aloud, “Why would they send you back here when they know I’ll need their codes to do this?” I thought to myself; at least it can be done.

The agent disappeared for a couple of minutes and returned with bad news; I need two pieces of mail to complete the process. Considering they were the person that told me a single document, the leasing agreement, would suffice, I thought the newfound reasoning was strange. When I explained my concern, the agent left again for about five minutes, this time returning with a different answer. The number of documents was no longer the issue, I had to wait until I received the card before I can change the address. Again, strange considering their website displays a specific note that reads:

“If you have applied for a REAL ID Compliant driver license or identification card and not received your card, you must visit a DMV field office, complete a Change of Address (DMV 14) form, and present proof of residency to change your address.”

I’m just a simple man that follows directions, which I was doing, so I was beginning to get frustrated. The situation seemed to be turning towards one where I perceived my request was too inconvenient, and no one wanted to provide the level of “customer service” required to resolve the situation. Which brings us to the heart of the problem -Customer Service is Expensive

Customer Service is Expensive

Customer Service Rep

What we all perceive as customer services is a series of steps designed to resolve human errors that arise from improper verification steps, inadequate training, and misinformation. Somewhere along the way, a mistake was made. It might be on the customer’s side or the vendor’s side.  Either way, how disputes are resolved determines how people view your brand. More importantly, they determine the value we place on the people responsible for interacting on an organization’s behalf.

When people perceive their time or money is being wasted, they’re unlikely to place a high value on the people with whom they interact, or on the services, they provide. When this happens, people are no longer an asset for an organization and become a detractor. When enough people are viewed as detractors, organizations have to decide if human interactions are worth the time and money they consume.

Ultimately, we question the value of humans every time they don’t tell us we’ve signed up for a trial service, or are getting an introductory price. We want better technology every time we lose our phones, and the person at the store won’t transfer our contacts because we aren’t buying anything. We want people fired when they open fake accounts to hit management quotas. Every time an employee does what’s easy, instead of what’s right, they are one step closer to losing their job to a machine.

How The Model 3 is Destroying Tesla

Tesla Model 3

If the story of Tesla was somehow a metaphor for stories from the Bible, then the Model 3 is Judas making sure everyone at Tesla is on their way to the last supper, assuring their shepherd is approaching his final resting place (that cross is for you Elon). Maybe it was always Tesla’s destiny to be a sacrificial lamb of sorts, ending up in the same situation as many other pioneering companies, often not lasting long enough to see the technology they introduce make it to mainstream profitability. Ultimately, the Model 3 will bring forth a real test of faith in electric car kingdom that Tesla built.

You see, the Model 3 betrays everything consumers love about Tesla, and at the same time reveals those in charge of the company don’t understand their clientele at all. As it turns out, car companies in America only operate in two models, high volume or high margin, and with each comes a specific set of expectations that have to be met if you want to continue in that space. Tesla was the latter, high margin, but the Model 3 changed everything.

Exclusivity

The first expectation of running a high margin, or premium brand, is exclusivity, which when speaking plainly, means these brands produce a low volume of products. Premium brands often justify their product scarcity by including extravagant materials or assembly methods as a part of their production process, enabling product owners to reference things like hand-stitched leather, individually assembled, or first of its kind, when talking to others about their new toys.

Model X with Falcon Doors Open
Photo courtesy of Mashable.com

In Tesla’s case, it’s Falcon Wing doors on the Model X, Ludicrous mode on the Model S, and street legal lithium batteries on the Roadster, that check all the appropriate branding boxes for a premium brand. These features, combined with lower product availability, meant consumers looked forward to random encounters with the vehicles in real life, hoping to catch a glimpse of how a Tesla embodies the concept of cool. Then came the Model 3.

The Model 3 is a contradiction in how premium brands operate, and when Tesla announced it at a $35K price point with the specific goal of being a mass-market vehicle, I could almost hear the other Tesla owners cringing. In the minds of premium brand owners, the proliferation of the Tesla badge to everybody and their mother would seemingly make the symbol on their vehicle less valuable, as if they were mathematically averaging the prices of the cars together. American’s don’t tolerate this kind of behavior. You can’t use the same branding for bargain vehicles as you do for premium ones.

Tesla’s could have easily avoided this mistake by using the same branding strategy as every other car manufacturer in America. In “Merica,” car companies use different brands to divide their consumer base between their operating models, one brand for volume, and another one for margin. That’s why there’s a GM and Cadillac, Infinite and Nissan, Ford and Lincoln, etc.

This two prong approach has enabled U.S. car manufacturers to maintain a certain amount of exclusivity on some brands, while simultaneously achieving the cost efficiencies of scale with another. More importantly, the dual branding strategy protects another expectation of premium brands – cost.

The Cost Correlation

Time to Cost Correlation

When there’s a limited supply of anything, most of the time, the cost of that product naturally increases, delivering a price point that inherently leads to more margin. Premium brands use this natural correlation of exclusivity and cost to perpetuate their brands further, promoting an emotional response that evokes admiration and envy. The combination of these two emotions is what brand experts like to refer to as aspirational, and Ferrari is a perfect example of an aspirational brand.

Do you know why I don’t drive a Ferrari? I can’t afford one, and for the people that can, that is part of the allure of owning one. For everyone with the same budgetary constraints as myself, the astronomical price tag associated with a Ferrari isn’t off-putting, it provides an immediate understanding that a person driving one must be doing pretty well for themselves and makes us wonder how we can achieve the same thing.

Tesla’s vehicles used to inspire the same type of awe as a Ferrari when they pulled into a parking lot, but the release of a reasonably priced version calls everything we know about the brand into question. A Tesla never had the practicality of a Nissan Leaf or the design of a Toyota Prius, and surely didn’t carry a similar price tag. A Tesla was always expensive, exclusive, and impractical, just like an aspirational car brand should be. All of that went out of the window with the Model 3.

Before the Model 3, when people asked me about owning a Tesla, my answer was the same as it is concerning a Ferrari, “I can’t afford one.” Since the release of the Model 3, it’s different, when people ask me why I don’t drive a Tesla, I have to consider if I really want one. Being able to afford one has forced me to consider the features of a Tesla, like reliability, charging time, and driving distance. I had to ask myself, is this the best car for me at 35K? For a lot of consumers, the answer to that question is no, which proposes some harsh realities for Tesla, and the future of electric cars.

Tesla’s Red Pill

Red Pill and Blue Pill

The reason the Model 3 ruined everything about Tesla is that it snapped everyone back to reality, not just consumers, but Tesla was well. Besides exposing previously oblivious consumers to serious considerations about owning an electric vehicle, it also presented questions about Tesla as a car company. The effort to reach critical mass has surfaced several issues about various aspects of Tesla, making everyone consider if they have the production capacity, infrastructure, and sales tools of a high volume brand.

In the end, the production Model 3 broke the rules of a premium brand and made us all lose faith in the dream that made Tesla great. All we’re left with is the harsh reality of having taken the red pill rather than the blue one. I should have heeded the advice of Cypher in the Matrix and realized “ignorance is bliss.”

Feel free to leave comments, questions, or concerns about this article below.

The Ugly Truth About Self-Driving Cars

Driving

Great Expectations

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of articles that are trying to temper the expectations related to autonomous vehicles, and with great satisfaction, I would like to say…it’s about time. If you bothered to read my article about VR being overhyped and underdelivered, you probably noticed I mentioned some other technologies that fall into that same category, and autonomous vehicles are one of them. It’s not that I’m skeptical about the benefits of the technology, I just understand that achieving those benefits are significantly further down the road than anyone wants to admit. If you don’t believe me, keep reading…

According to IHS Automotive, a leader in automobile industry statistics, at the beginning of 2016, “the average age of all light vehicles on the road in the U.S. had climbed slightly to 11.5 years.” Even if fully autonomous cars were available today, America wouldn’t see any significant market penetration for at least a decade, and most of it would be limited to higher socioeconomic areas. To everyone who thought self-driving cars were going to be bobbing and weaving down the streets of their local cities by 2020, you should probably prepare to be disappointed.

You may be asking yourself, why is the timeline is so important? It’s important because of one of the most significant benefit promised through the evolution of autonomous vehicles is related to safety, and achieving it can’t be accomplished until autonomous vehicles comprise ~90% of all cars on the road. Keep in mind that number is my personal calculation, but until self-driving cars make-up a significant portion of vehicles on the road, cities won’t see any significant decrease in the number of automotive accidents that occur every year.

Human Error

Do you know the most common cause of accidents for self-driving vehicles? It’s human error, the same thing it’s always been. Accidents have been happening for the same reason for as long as I can remember. Someone makes a wrong decision, puts other people’s lives at risk, and placing a computer at the helm of one of the vehicles won’t change this fact as long as there are humans on the road with them. Waymo, autonomous vehicle spinoff from Google, stopped reporting their accidents at the beginning of 2018, making it harder for interested parties to keep up with their efforts to remove human error from the roadways, but the good news is, California has archived all of the previous reports on their site if you’re interested in reading through them.

The most common accident type reported were humans rear-ending self-driving cars. Because computers don’t make decisions, they make calculations; autonomous vehicles will ALWAYS run the risk of being plowed into at a yellow light when there are humans in the cars surrounding them. If a computer controlled vehicle can safely stop before the intersection, it will do so, while its human counterparts can be expected to merely say the light was “pink” when they hit the intersection. Human behavior of this type is precisely why autonomous vehicles face such an uphill battle when it comes to public acceptance.

Humans expect the vehicles around them to make decisions in the manner they do, and that means running into the back of a lot of computer-driven vehicles. Running a yellow light is one of the riskiest human driving behaviors on the road, one that we take for granted as we’re driving with other humans, but it’s also one that computers won’t tolerate. Other behaviors, like coming to a complete stop at a stop sign (never happens in California…) and when turning right on a red light, will all lead to accidents between the computer and human-driven vehicles.

Winner Take All

Computers will always strive to provide an element of society that humans can never achieve, perfection, and their achievement of it will only further highlight human imperfections (more accidents). Ultimately, it will be a human that forces a self-driving car to have to choose between saving the lives of its passengers or taking the lives of other drivers. Right now, some engineer is sitting in a room evaluating a Kobayashi Maru scenario that forces a self-driving car to choose lesser of two evils in an unwinnable situation.

For example, a human driver falls asleep and crosses over into oncoming traffic, and someone has to die. Will your self-driving car decide to save its passengers or the passengers in another vehicle? You won’t know the answer to the question until it’s too late. Simply knowing that an engineer has to program a predetermined outcome into a computer for this scenario is already a scary enough thought. What I’m more afraid of is the method that needs to be employed to significantly decrease the chances of any unnecessary carnage happening as a result of these kinds of scenarios.

In a situation where a catastrophic event is inevitable, and death is an assured outcome, the best way to minimize the damage is to make sure all autonomous vehicles react to the situation in the same way. I’ll give you a second to digest that…

“To prevent additional cars from being involved in accidents, all autonomous vehicles on the road should be running the same system so they can anticipate the calculations of other vehicles in their proximity. Think of it as hive mind.”

If a car suddenly blows a tire on the freeway, every autonomous vehicle should avoid the car, in unison, at the same speed, in the same direction, to prevent any unnecessary collisions. If all the cars are running the same system, the other self-driving vehicles on the road won’t need to guess the calculations of the other vehicles involved; they’ll already know what’s going to happen. Instead of having a ten car pile up, the result is a two-car accident, saving more lives in the process.

This aspect of the technology isn’t frequently discussed, but we all know what it means, someone needs to have a monopoly on self-driving vehicle technology. Even though the United States has antitrust laws in place, to truly reach the pinnacle of efficiently concerning autonomous vehicles, only one technology should be implemented. So I’m putting everyone on notice…the self-driving car market is playing a winner take all game, and they should all know that winning is everything.