Monday, June 18, 2018

Work and how different types of jobs are perceived

Happened on a Channel News Asia series over the weekend. It is about jobs in Singapore, which are considered to be 'low status'. The documentary, in 5 episodes, is titled "don't make us invisible" and follows the work routine of a petrol pump attendant, bus driver, cleaner and construction worker. All part of the Singapore government's efforts to shift the perception of the populace to consider that all jobs are important, not only the ones which require academic excellence. As it is, the majority of jobs deemed to be low status, are conducted by non-Singaporeans. With the rise in AI and robotics, some of these jobs will disappear, but there will still be  whole categories of work, requiring humans.

The status of jobs is not only an Asian challenge, this chapter 'beyond the vocational / academic divide: inclusion through craftwork and embodied learning', argues that all work, requires engagement and commitment. If we take on the view of learning as moving towards 'embodiment' of a set of manual skills, tacit knowledge and craftsman-like attitudes, then all learning, be it vocational or academic, are important towards contributing to social good.

Interestingly, there is also a volume of  recent literature, example summarised in this recent Stuff article, of how well respected jobs, can be boring and feel pointless. Over 80% of legal jobs, 70% plus project management, support functions, 60%plus in consulting / accounting, financial services / banking, engineering, sales / marketing and communications and over 50% IT type jobs are on the list! Another article summarises David Graeber's, one perspective of why these jobs lack satisfaction. The book 'Bullshit jobs'  categorises these jobs as "goons, flunkies, box tickers, task masters and duct tapers" with people responding that 'the jobs are so pointless that they are not able to justify their existence themselves'.

So although the above well-respected jobs require high academic achievement to enter, they do not, offer satisfaction and are just a means to earn a wage. So perhaps the entry of AI / robotics might not be such a bad thing after all! Some of the boring aspects of 'bullshit jobs' may be taken over. Whereas, the jobs requiring high levels of 'embodiment' providing greater job satisfaction, may continue due to their high levels of manual skill complexity and variety. What does that say of how we educate for the future? Something to think through and follow up.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Emerge – Ara Institute of Technology ICT projects exhibition

The annual showcase for Bachelor of Information and Computer Technology (BICT) students runs across this week 11 – 15 June.


As part of the week, there was an evening event with two guest speakers, followed by presentations from students of their work.

Tony Grey, Ara CE provided the welcome and opening of the event. Dr. Bernard Otinpong, computing tutor/lecturer was the MC.

David Carter, Director of Stratos Technology Partners and the chairperson of Canterbury Tech presented on ‘the future of ICT’. Provided two examples of the acceleration in adoption of innovations requiring high IT infrastructure and resources. One is the use of AI bots by Google to  conduct conversations. The second is the development of self-driving cars. Social impacts are often under-stated and just these two technologies, will contribute to the world of the future. The challenge for NZ, a small country, is to ensure we understand what is coming or is already here, and to leverage of these. Provided an example of the smart use of technology to support dairy industry – monitoring of cows across a year provided sufficient data to predict time cows were ready for insemination and how the time of insemination would determine the gender of the offspring. Tech economy is low impact environmentally and Christchurch is well situated to contribute (being second to Wellington in number of IT companies and employees) . Need to ensure there are sufficient IT people to support the industry.

Teresa McCullum, Smart Cities project manager for the Christchurch City Council presented on ‘Smart cities and the internet of things’. Set up the context and rationale for the potentialities of IT careers in Christchurch. Shared the CCC vision for becoming a smart city. Defined smart city and internet of things (IoT). Updated on current work – open platform, open data and open information – to facilitate the interaction between the many ‘internet of things’ points and remove barriers to the adoption of innovative technologies. Exampled the way traffic flow is monitored and information is provided to motorists, rubbish bin sensors and earthquake response sensors. Check smart city Christchurch website.

An interesting session followed as students presented their work. Posters summarised their projects and students were available to answer questions. Almost all of the projects, were focused on the themes brought up by the speakers. Many projects also produced proof of concept type apps or systems for local companies, including this cycle safety app for school children to generate a safe route on bike to school.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst - book overview

I picked this book up from the local library and am glad I chanced upon it.

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst by Robert M. Sapolsky, published 2017 by Penguin. 

Sapolsky presents excerpts from the book on a recent TedTalk


This book tries to and mostly succeeds in bringing together, the many threads of neurobiological, developmental, along with the evolutionary, and  social and cultural contributions to how we behave.
The book is pitched at interested lay people, but requires background in human biology to understand. 

The 3 appendices provided are therefore extremely useful overviews of neuroscience (i.e. how the brain works); endocrinology (i.e. the contribution of hormones and biochemical) and proteins (i.e. the genetics basis of life).

The book also has extensive notes for the keen to follow up (50 pages) and a thorough index.

There are 17 chapters with short introduction and epilogue bracketing the content.
The book begins with a behaviour, then proceeds to uncover, over time, layer by layer, the many influences that allow the said behaviour to occur.

The first 2 chapters focus on the neurobiology and biochemistry which drives behaviour. Appendix 1, covering the basics of neurobiology, is recommended as a prerequisite. The three chapters cover the brain areas relevant to understanding behaviour. The amygdala which is where reward, anticipation arise; the role of dopamine; and the frontal lobes contribution to regulation and restraint of behaviours.

Then follow 3 chapters which overlap between physical neurobiology and the biochemical interactions which contribute to behaviour. In particular, details on testetorone (on aggression), oxytoxin and vasopressin (on the mother-infant bond), adaptive female aggression through estrogen, progesterone and oxytoxine, the effects of sustained stress and the caveat that hormones do not determine, command or cause behaviours but make us more sensitive to triggers from emotionally charged behaviours. The effects of these hormones on memory and discussion on neuroplasticity are also included. Chapter 6 provides application of the precepts from the previous chapters by exploring and discussing the adolescent brain – ‘or dude, where is my frontal cortex?’

Then follow 3 chapters focusing on human development. Summarising the various behaviours’ development from birth and the genetic/ epigenetic causes of some of these behaviours. Also the contribution of mother’s behaviours while baby is in the womb and the wider social issues which cause behaviours which are distinct in various populations. Chapter 8 has a good overview of epigenetics and argues that genes are not autonomous. Instead, they are regulated by the wider environment. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong or even across generations. So it is now not so much important what your genetical heritage might be but the environment in which those genes find themselves and how many other environmental factors contribute to how genes manifest, or remain dormant.

Chapter 9 synthesises the biological with aspects of the social-cultural. For example, the role of culture in contributing to why there is a gender gap in mathemathics testing. There is overview of the salient foundations of social theories, including collectivist vs individualist cultures; pastoralism (e.g. what agriculture has contributed); stratified vs egalitarian cultures; the effects of population size, density and heteriogeneity; and origins of religion and war.

Evolution's contribution is then discussed in the next three chapters. The premise is that evolution can shape behaviour, but with caveats. The usual foundations of evolution are discussed, including why there is reciprocal altruism, as it does not favour genetical transfer of the altruistic individual. The nuances of selection are proposed and critiqued – as in individual, group, kin selection etc.  In short, brain neurobiology, genes, hormones, social contributions etc.  provide not so much causes as propensities, potentials, vulnerabilities, predispositions etc.

Chapter 11 provides a good overview of why we are ‘tribal’ and why it we are drawn to ‘us vs them’ reactions. Discussions follow on the contribution of this concept to a whole host of human responses. Chapter 12 follows with extension of chapter 11 with discussion on the social basis of hierarchy, obedience and resistance. Why we crave status, its roots in biology and the social and cultural bases that support and enhance status. This chapter covers much ground. Importantly, the ways we make decisions are founded in our biology (i.e. how we make decisions, our approaches to reflective thought and how we resolve cognitive dissonance). Our social systems have ameliorated some of the predisposition to just look after ourselves and those close to us. For instance, we invented democracy and social welfare. However, we are also conformists and this may lead us to follow pathways which disadvantage ‘the other’.

The implications on behaviour are then presented in a couple of chapters. Chapter 13 summarises morality and ethics and how they contribute. Chapter 14 is on empathy, why do we feel the pain of others? And especially, why are we neurobiologically primed to have empathy.

Chapter 15 follows up behaviours at the other end of the continuum from empathy. Why do we kill? How do we circumvent the inner biological and cultural reinforcements of disgust etc. to kill others?

Chapter 16 is an interesting chapter which discusses whether we have free will. The criminal justice system is used as the basis for examples. In particular, how snippets of neuroscience research have been used, without deeper study of the actual implications. Hence, neurolaw, as an emergent science has to counter misconceptions and provide more studied responses.

The penultimate chapter ‘war and peace’ brings the various themes together. It presents the behaviours which have improved (i.e. we have mellowed and are less likely to go to war); discusses how to move forward and improve our behaviours as a species further; and summarises the best of humanity’s contributions.

In short, things are complicated. We may understand some of the underlying biological basis for behaviour but there are many contributing factors beyond the biological. There is never one factor or cause, but a multitude of interactions, concurrent shifts, biological and social coevolution etc. Understanding this means we need to read the literature critically and not just take things at face value.

All in, a really good synthesis, written in readable prose. Best read if you are interested in the topic as there is a lot to take in (over 600 pages including the appendices).



Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Peak: Secrets from the science of expertise - book overview

This is a layperson's book on deliberate practice. The book - Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise is by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, published in 2017.

The more scholarly book - development of professional expertise - see summary on this blog here, makes for more thorough discussion and information.

However, for people wanting a quick overview of deliberate practice, and its application to daily life, the book Peak provides good introduction and overview. The book has 10 chapters, each building on the other.

The book begins with 3 chapters to introduce the concepts of deliberate practice. Then, follow two chapters on application (deliberate practice on the job and in everyday life). There is then a chapter on 'the road to extraordinary', summarising much of the work on understanding expertise and arguing that it is deliberate practice which is the key to expert performance. The next chapter then discusses the conundrum of 'natural talent', what is its role in feeding into expertise. The last chapter looks into 'where do we go from here', providing for suggestions for further research into the development of expertise. 

There are 30 pages of notes for those who are keen to follow up more on the topic.

A related article - how to make your kid good at everything - provides more overview of the book's contents. The summation in the article is 'it is not how much practice, but how you do it' which is the important message from the book.

As always, one concept, can only go so far to explain the complexities of human learning. Critique of the concept of deliberate practice was summarised on this blog a few years ago.





Monday, May 28, 2018

Review of NZ vocational education system and ITPs - summary to date

The newly elected NZ Government, a coalition of Labour, Greens and NZ First, had a wide range of items to address when they took up office at the end of last year. One was a review of the entire NZ education system from early childhood to tertiary and vocational education. The last six months has seen a flurry of papers and roadmaps of the various work streams to be completed over the next 6 months to a year.

Since I work and research in the sectors, the review of the NZ vocational education system and the Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) are of interest.

The state of review for ITPs is as follows:
- The original 2017 report by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) spells out the challenges including lower enrolments across the sector brought about by lower school leaver numbers over the coming years and high employment across all sectors of the NZ economy. Then the TEC follows on with a roadmap of suggestions for a way forward.

The Minister's view is found in here. With usual hyped up commentary from the media on 'can polytechs be saved?'

-  The scope of the review of Vocational education is provided by Ministry of Education. The scope includes a strong network of provision for all regions; work-based learning that adapts to a variety of needs, a system that is effective for a diverse range of learning; a system that supports, and is supported by industry.

As with most reviews, there are opportunities to try to get things better. However, the challenges presented are large and will require systemic change, in particular, funding structures, to ensure public funding is used responsibly but ensuring NZers are provided access to opportunities for vocational education.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Robots and AI - some NZ perspectives

There has been a flurry of activity via various media and government agencies, on the effects of robotics, artificial intelligence, industry 4.0 etc,. These discussion, all feed into the range of consultations, now underway, on the future of education in NZ - see this link for example of consultation with Business NZ and the Council of Trade Unions.


Overseas, there has been extensive reporting on the rise of AI - see todayonline for example. There has been interest in the effects of the Amazon Go stores - which obviate the need for cashers, checkouts and shopping carts. Also many articles about how AI will replace jobs - for instance lawyers.

Beyond the hype are articles which provide a bit more balance, for instance, the shift in how some jobs will be constituted, rather than replacements of jobs, and the significance of AI but its limitations in replacing many human attributes. Plus the workers viewpoints, as in making a repetitive job more interesting when robots are added into the mix.

Several interesting articles add to the mix of the need to balance the more extreme views on robots and AI. This TEDtalk, argues for the need to not use human understanding to construct algorithms for AI, as AI can work quite differently from how humans thinks (with their inherent bias etc.)

Some NZ focused articles include:
the boost to the NZ economy by 2053 if policies are developed now to ensure the foundations for AI are sound - e.g. ethics, privacy, IP etc.
a caution against UBI
A good overview from BERL NZ on the internet of things, big data, smart cities and the skills required for the transportation industry into the future
Robots in NZ may be useful in occupations how finding it difficult to attract workers - including forestry and horticulture.
plus another one on there being no need to fear the coming of robots.

All good reading to keep up with the play as the convergence of technologies, hasten AI, robotics etc. into our social structures and lives.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

ASL presentations #4 - Ara Institute of Canterbury


Due to another meeting, I had to miss the Tuesday one which was #3 in the series. Today, the last session with two tutors presenting:

Steve Neale from engineering presents on ‘power to the people’. Overviewed his passion for power generation and providing people with better understanding of how the power system works in NZ and how to get the most out of their power supplier. Used his ASL to upskill and update his knowledge into specialised aspects e.g. unsymmetrical faults in phase currents, sub-station information exchange processes. Time taken through study, and time with various companies plus renewal of his registration as an electrical engineer. Explained challenges and how to apply the understanding to practice to help students learn the concept.

Lorna Davis presents on ‘midwifery: a sustainable healthcare practice?’ Completed PhD through ASL and presented a summary of this at this presentation. Objective was to find out how midwives view the concept of sustainability, how it related to their professional lives and if engagement in a change project would change their perceptions. Shared her Mobius model of sustainable midwifery which brings together the themes of philosophies, education and practice.