New IP

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

The next installment of our original science fiction serial is up! See Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 6: Patient but Rough .

Need to get caught up? Start here: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business

Or find all the episodes here: Faster-Than-Light Reading.

Once you're caught up, come back here and we'll talk about some of the technology and business issues behind the story.

Over on his own blog, author John Barnes is talking about the implications of one of the biggest differences between the fictional 2030 (or so) of his story and our real-world 2015. The post is here: "Episode 5 is up, so here's a "blog about robocorps, pitchforks, hairy monosyllabists, decision rules and the tenth heuristic (with a footnote about pistachios)."[1]

One of the main characters of "Silence Like Diamonds" is a company rather than a person: NameItCorp.[2] Barnes's narrator describes NameItCorp as being as big in 2030 as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is in 2015.

Indeed, as John's editor, I toyed with the idea of suggesting he simply make the company Google -- a fictionalized version of Google as it might exist in a possible 2030.[3]

Unlike Google of today, however, the fictional NameItCorp has no employees whatsoever. It's all software and networks. It's one huge, world-spanning app.

This is, of course, an extension of present-day trends. Decades of increasing productivity driven by intelligent, networked computers have allowed businesses to do more and more with fewer and fewer people. Jobs that used to be done by people are now done by algorithms, and machine learning and big data will simply drive that trend further.

Consider this discussion of the classic 1960 movie The Apartment. Jack Lemmon plays CC Baxter, a clerk in a large insurance company in New York. He sits at a single, gray desk, one of rows and columns of identical desks that stretch off into the distance as far as the eye can see. It's a striking image; if you've seen the movie, you won't forget it.

In the discussion, blogger Benedict Evans explains: "In effect, every person on that floor is a cell in a spreadsheet. The floor is a worksheet and the building is an Excel file, with thousands of cells each containing a single person. CC Baxter is on the 19th floor, section W, desk 861. The links between cells are made up of a typewriter, carbon copies ('CC') and an internal mail system, and it takes days to refresh whenever someone on the top floor presses F9. (Shirley MacLaine plays an elevator attendant, so this is actually a romance between a button and a spreadsheet cell.)"

CC Baxter's job doesn't exist anymore. It's now done by a cell on a spreadsheet.

In the past, a skilled salesperson could make a nice living suggesting products you might like. ("Might I recommend these three neckties with that shirt, sir?") Amazon does that now. A skilled travel agent helped you find the right spots for your vacation. ("When I was in Paris, I found this WONDERFUL cafe -- the tourists don't know about it!") Expedia, Travelocity, TripAdvisor and Yelp do that now. And a skilled librarian helped you find just the information you're looking for (Google, Google and more Google).[4]

Software is climbing the corporate food chain. Used to be only line employees were threatened -- those salespeople and travel agents, as well as factory workers. Now, software is doing management jobs.

This is an issue in the New IP. Network virtualization technologies such as SDN and NFV allow us to programmatically configure switches and other network equipment. No need for manual, hands-on configuration and truck rolls [5] to send people and equipment out to customer premises individually. That's great for the business -- but what if your job is to drive that truck and configure those switches manually? What happens to you?

Find out more about the New IP on Light Reading's The New IP Channel.

The theory of automation is that automation creates wealth. Growing business creates more demand for workers. The network engineer retrains and becomes a software developer. We'll see how that works out in real life.

In the fictional 2030 world of "Silence Like Diamonds," software has eaten the entire corporation. NameItCorp has no employees: No CEO, no senior vice presidents, no directors, managers, line employees or janitors. All the work is done by machines.

Indeed, it's possible "Silence Like Diamonds" doesn't go far enough. In a passing remark, our heroine, Yip, says that computers still don't have money, so they need human beings as customers.

But Yip overlooks how much of the economy depends on business-to-business transactions. In the communications sector, we know this very well. Service providers are devoting increasing parts of their business to serving enterprise and SMB customers. And this trend is likely to increase, for economic reasons: The consumer market is tightly regulated, and consumers are resistant to price increases -- they want more bandwidth and more content delivered through that bandwidth, at the same, flat rate. Whereas the enterprise business is flexible, and enterprises are willing to pay for the service they need.

So the future may see an economy where businesses trade with each other, and humans sit on the sidelines.

But that day is not today. Today, enjoy the latest installment of "Silence Like Diamonds." And join us again Friday for Episode 7.

P.S. Source of the headline for this post.

  1. John's motto when it comes to writing headlines on his blog: "Search engine optimization? I've heard of it."  ↩

  2. Kind of like the way New York is a character in Woody Allen movies.  ↩

  3. And now I regret not mentioning the idea to him.  ↩

  4. I have recent personal experience with this as a consumer. Last week, I decided I wanted to get a Chromebook. A few years ago, I would have read a lot of reviews and talked to my friends in the technology industry. A few years before that, I would have also gone into a couple of electronics stores to try them out and talk with knowledgable salespeople.

    But for my Chromebook this month, I just went on Amazon and bought the first one that came up when I searched on "Chromebook." Specs look pretty good, and it gets 4.5 stars out of 665 customer reviews, so why not?  ↩

  5. I love the phrase "truck rolls."  ↩

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

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Mitch Wagner 8/21/2015 | 10:08:12 AM
Re: Amazing kq4ym - "One does wonder if wars are a result of the desire for more power and money, or a desire to be treated fairly."

I'm going to say war is a natural part of the human condition. It's just something we human beings do, like breathing and eating and talking and building houses. The causes are a desire for more power, more money, control over other people or land, religious belief, combined with a conviction of being in the right. If Group A goes to war with Group B to take some of Group B's stuff, Group A generally believes -- or professes to believe -- it has a right to that stuff.

To the extent we program our natures into our machines, they will fight wars too. Indeed, one of the leading supporters of robotics and AI is DARPA, the same guys who brought us the Internet.
kq4ym 8/21/2015 | 10:01:21 AM
Re: Amazing One does wonder if wars are a result of the desire for more power and money, or a desire to be treated fairly. The analytics of power and money might more easily be quantified over the desire for fair treatment. Social and religious philosophy is not so easy to put numbers to and not so easily understood or repected by those of opposite views. If machines can figure out greed, desire, and anger we might just have something.
Mitch Wagner 8/13/2015 | 4:59:12 PM
Re: Amazing John - It's true that work has been linked to production throughout human history. That's been very nearly a tautology. If nobody works the fields, we don't have food. If nobody works on the looms, we don't have clothes. Want a house? Sombody has to build it. 

But linking work to consumption seems historically recent. It's a recent ideal, that people with the best skills and who work hardest should get rewarded most. Previously, through most of history, reward was proportional to military might. 

Indeed, this occurs to me when I read the news about US's dealings with Iran and Russia. The US is playing a game where it wants the most wealth. Iran and Russia seem to be playing an older game -- a very old one -- blood and soil empire. It's like the US is playing checkers and the other guys are playing chess -- two different games with only a surface similarity.  

And ISIS is the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan, transferred forward in time 900 years, with smartphones and modern weaponry. 
mendyk 8/13/2015 | 8:50:07 AM
Re: Amazing Hi, John -- Thanks, but I'll stick to snarky haikus and message board posts for now. I know a few real writers -- you folks make Sisyphus look like a slacker. I'm sure you know this, but there's a growing body of work in psych and philosophy circles about the de facto transfer of human brain functions to our little handheld overlords.
John Barnes 8/13/2015 | 12:26:15 AM
Re: Amazing Mendyk, I have to say that phrase "someday human intelligence will be an oxymoron" is giving me ideas all over the place. What a brilliant little slogan; you really ought to write more on the subject, whether fiction, essay, or graffiti.
John Barnes 8/13/2015 | 12:24:26 AM
Re: Amazing Mitch, in 2000, Al Gore (I always want to write his name as Algor, speaking of robotic...) made a spectacular campaign gaffe in Seattle, where he said that sure, closing the Boeing airliner assembly line there (because to get the contract, Boeing agreed to do the assembly work in China) cost a lot of high paying machinist jobs, but just look how many high paying coder  jobs were being added at Microsoft.

That Boeing plant employed almost 30,000 workers; at the time, Microsoft had maybe 2500.


I'm going to be on a panel at Bubonicon at the end of htis month on "post-economic society" (post-economic meaning no scarcity, therefore no need to ration, and economics is always about rationing ,whether the mechanism is price, birthright, the central planning bureau, or the temple hierarchy).  One precondition, IMHO, for post economic society has to be decoupling work almost completely from production and consumption both That won't be an easy re-design of the world, given that we have all of recorded history on the other side.
DHagar 8/12/2015 | 2:37:35 PM
Re: Amazing mendyk, I like it!  You have me interested already.  Let me know when you publish it!
DHagar 8/12/2015 | 2:37:33 PM
Re: Amazing mendyk, I like it!  You have me interested already.  Let me know when you publish it!
DHagar 8/12/2015 | 2:35:03 PM
Re: Amazing MitchWagner, it is amazing how much things are truly changing.  Thomas Davenport has written an excellent article, "Beyond Automation", that depicts the changes you are writing about.
mendyk 8/12/2015 | 2:03:09 PM
Re: Amazing There should be a major role in this series for a family of self-absorbed, vapid, and morally bankrupt individuals who turn out to be cyborgs created by the machine overlords to accelerate the erosion of human intelligence. And the name of that family should begin with the letter K.
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