Friday, January 27, 2012

The Borg Have Jobs

/Cognoun: a toothed bar or wheel
Encyclopedia Galactica.

I wish I could tell new graduates: All those How-to-pass-a-Job-Interview booklets, with their advice to "research the company" have a secret agenda.

 I've recently been astounded by a new appreciation for old common advice on how to find a job... and what sort of worker to be, once hired.

My thoughts here begin with machines, then go to a computer expert's essay about jobs, and at last I consider democracy.

Machines. Said the Cylon to the human, "Are you alive?" Could you, dear reader, pass the "Turing test?" Not everyone can. I was talking to David Gerrold, a father and science fiction writer. He remarked that children could not always pass, that a kid will suddenly impulsively reach for an object and not know why. How can you tell if a machine has become "alive," has become an "artificial intelligence," has become, by definition, "self aware?" In the film 2010 the computer Hal shows it's self awareness when he asks, "Will I dream?"

The father of the computer age, Alan Turing, came up with a simple test. In Turing's day, a time of slide rules and vacuum tubes, no one knew how to build an artificial intelligence, but everybody knew that someday many people would be making the attempt.

One could fake intelligence, of course. The first Terminator movie has a scene where the robot is in a hotel room. From the hall some one yells a question. The machine drags down a menu list of responses, clicks on one and shouts a reply, a reply obscene, but quite human sounding. In theory you could build a big computer, complete with blinking lights, that gives a false impression of being able to converse. You just need lots of menus and decision trees and oodles of computing power. It would still be a fake. How would  you tell?

Turing came up with an elegant test: A machine will pass the Turing test when you can talk to it for a long time on the telephone and never realize that at the other end of the line is a machine.

We might agree with Gerrold that children may not always be self aware, but adults?
When we look at rows of computer guys working in their cubicles doing their IT (information technology) or developing software (by typing computer code) we are certain we are seeing live humans, although of course we may joke about them being part of the Borg collective. However, I have recently lost my certainty. I have been astounded... I'm still getting over it, thanks to "Stevey."

A computer guy, Stevey is one of my bookmarked blog-essayists. Down the years Stevey has hosted many job interviews to  hire software developers. Today I am pondering a certain post of Stevey's entitled Godel, Escher, Blog. His piece begins with admiring a mathematician and ends with listing some computer geek questions to self-track your own "self awareness."  (See Stevey's Home Rants)

I learned, if I've got this right, that most software stuff is "base operation," like a machine slavishly adding "one plus one plus one" et cetera. Stevey points out that "meta (thinking about) operations" can also be encoded, but this happens far less often. An old machine, if base programmed, can travel one meter plus one meter plus one meter... But a young human, (if in meta mode) as Stevey notes, whines "Are we there yet?"

As I see it, a human with weekly staff meetings, if not a slave to his base nature, may nobly ask, "Do we need this particular meeting?" Or, "Does our practice of meeting weekly still serve a purpose?" I do this at work, not to be a "mud disturber," but because I try to be aware of my purpose. Call it being "self aware," or "job aware." Because I operate with awareness, and because I mud disturb so diplomatically, I've been given the unsought title of Service Excellence Ambassador, with the perk of regularly having lunch with my CEO.

I wish I could tell new graduates: All those How-to-pass-a-Job-Interview booklets, with their advice to "research the company" have a secret agenda. On the surface a job seeker is always being advised to research to become aware of the company, showing initiative and interest and enthusiasm. On a deeper level, though, the secret hope is that after you pass your interview and get hired, you will keep up your awareness, your meta-mode, as a way of life. I say again: as a way of life. 

Are you a leader at work? You could be, right now, right where you are. Last week I noticed a newspaper display advertisement for new employees. A generic ad, really. Without, of course, using the phrase "meta-operation," the ad was for ordinary entry-level desk workers with computers who could wear many hats and thereby "be leaders in an exciting company." In other words, in this company "leadership" is not only a position of managerial rank, but also a quality "between the ears" that everybody working there, including those at entry-level, could have.

But not everyone does. How unfortunate. To an alive college student, with a lively interest in "the meaning of life" it may be hard to fathom recent graduates, white-collar workers, being unalive. The vital issue isn't smartness. After all, the computer nerds in those cubicles are smart. The issue is attitude. Stevey often interviews experienced developers looking for coding jobs at his company. I was energized by this part of his essay:

... That's why my project related questions always included meta-questions like, "How many lines of code was your project or program?" "How many people were working on the project and for  how long?" "Who was the customer for this project?" "How did you know if you were on track?" and so on. I find that smart people always have good answers... Unsmart people (who, alas, comprise the majority of our interview candidates) not only haven't ever thought about these things, they're usually quite surprised, if not openly hostile, about being asked. They evidently think of themselves as cogs in a machine, one that's being piloted by someone else.

Hostile? Openly hostile? How can anybody want to be a cog? That's like wanting to be a Borg. Not me. As I see it, if a company's top executives want the  non-managers to be "leaders," as my CEO does, it's not just to make the company more competitive, and a more positive place; it's because executives are human, and so they want you, just like them, to know your human potential. I sure as heck prefer to be around positive, growing, alive people.

If such cogs are so prevalent in the working world—and it's not something I like to think about—are they also prevalent in a democracy? Maybe so. It surprises me to say this, but maybe democracy only works because sprinkled among us are the salt of the earth, the yeast in the dough, the citizen-soldiers in the body politic, and without them all this democracy can't go on. Maybe the inventors of democracy, through their well rounded schools, were trying to give their children a chance to avoid "cog-ism."

In contrast to classical Greece, the non-democracies in this tired old world, in every space and time, from a communist collective to a Muslim theocracy, all share one common attribute: human growth is not encouraged.

I once shared a house with two men from two of the eastern bloc countries. The fourth man in our house was a self-employed contractor: He was cool. The other two? Whipped dogs. I thought: My God, what has communism done to them? One man was taking appliance repair at the provincial technical school but believe me, he had none of the usual student optimism or can-do spirit. It was awful to see.

The awful thing about non-democracies is they reduce humans to peasants. If, like a peasant, you lack any power to effect any change, then you lose any sense of purposeful curiosity. And then you might as well be a cog: Your library card gathers dust. The mantra of the peasant is, "What's the use?"

Living here, under a democratic sky,  I'm so grateful to be alive and realizing my potential, as worker and citizen... 

In Battlestar Galactica, two scenes were symbolic. Do you know the first human question spoken in the series? There is no weather on a battlestar. Commander Adama is walking when Starbuck comes jogging along. She stops to jog in place. He asks the young woman, "What do you hear, Starbuck?"

She replies, "Nothing but the rain, Sir."

"Then grab your gun and bring in the cat."

She points and jabs, "Boom boom boom, Sir." And jogs away. An illogical exchange, of course, one that machines wouldn't get, but one that humans would be OK with. (Although I can't imagine any women in the terror-exporting nations talking this way) There is a bittersweet scene, at the end of the show, when this exchange is reprised, again with no rain in sight... Not being cogs, they both have a touching awareness of how affection makes illogic possible.

The first machine question is posed during the opening scene. We see an old worker: Colorless, bland, and performing as a cog. Although the scenes of him aging alone on the space station were cut, we still know he has become a dull cog because he summons up almost no spontaneity, no creativity, in answer to her question. It's been too many years since he pondered the "meaning of life." The pretty Cylon, Number Six, asks him, "Are you alive?" He barely speaks, uttering only a machine's binary answer: "Yes" ... He fails her test; he is destroyed.

Destroyed? Don't let it happen to you!     

Sean Crawford
Alive and affectionate towards people at work,
and any dear readers,
on this 2010 space odyssey.

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