Monday, May 8, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Apart from coming up with one of the greatest ever (in my view) titles for a novel, old Philip K Dick was a pretty bright bloke, in that his book explores the relationship between humans and our machine counterparts - something we are only really scratching the surface of nearly 50 years after it was first published.

This robot was not featured at the conference, it's just a random picture, but ah, bless him, what a cutie
His book was never far from my mind when I was at the inaugural Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), at the end of March, in Abu Dhabi, because the topic of robots, automation and artificial intelligence arose again and again throughout.

I think I was probably one of the few people to have sat through the entire three day summit, as I was compiling a report for a forecasting and research company on the major outcomes, and I came away feeling slightly reassured that while perhaps we are all dooooooomed, doooooomed, I tell you, as all of our jobs, even mine will one day be taken over by a robot that is vastly more intelligent, efficient, and less demanding of biscuits, Yorkshire teabags, chicken sandwiches and Cadbury's Dairy Milk, than I am, it may not happen as quickly as some might think.

An electric sheep, also not featured at GMIS, but, oh you know, see above

Here are my key takeaways from the event:

1. Automation and robots are coming, there is nothing we can do about it. It is human instinct to want to find ways of doing things more efficiently, and eliminating human error through the use of robotics is therefore inevitable.

2. We have been here before. The headlines you are seeing about "humans need not apply" were described as "scaremongering" by an Oxford University academic, who said that all the arguments currently being made against automation were made in the first industrial revolution (we are on the fourth now) and that while technology exists, it is not being implemented as fast as you might expect. In addition, the origin of the word "sabotage" comes from when workers in the first industrial revolution threw their wooden clogs or "sabots" into machinery to jam it and make it appear faulty and inefficient, with the hope that they would keep their jobs for longer.

3. There are two schools of thought. One - robots are the beginning of the end for humans, they will take our jobs, we will be redundant, social problems will increase enormously as unemployment rises. Two - automisation will mean a massive improvement in the lives of workers in manufacturing, who will be able to work shorter hours and thus enjoy better quality of life as they depend on smart machines.

4. It's not just robots, it's co-bots. While in some areas, robotics are taking over, humans work alongside them in others. For example, in the Chinese jewellery industry - gem setting is increasingly done by robots, but the more delicate polishing work is done by humans.

5. "It's not about costs, it's a necessity". Back to China - one Chinese manufacturer said the new generation of Chinese workers have aspirations beyond the factory, and do not see themselves as manufacturers, therefore, manufacturers are using robotics in their production lines out of necessity, saying they could not fill the jobs with humans even if they wanted to.

6. We have to make it work for everyone. As previously discussed, automation is coming, whether we like it or not, and there is a great deal of fear and anxiety about what it will mean for society. We are only just beginning to understand what it will mean, and it has to work for everyone, not just the top one per cent, otherwise it is in danger of being a step backwards, not forwards.

7. Something needs to be done to bring in more women. Apart from in the media room, where there were several females of the species, XX chromosomal makeups were distinctly thin on the ground. Of a three-day conference, I could count on one hand the amount of female speakers. One of the women speakers particularly stuck in my mind, as she addressed the fact that women working in manufacturing, particularly at a high level, are rare.

To expand on this topic, as it's rather a big one, and obviously close to my heart, one of the few female speakers, Kathryn E Wengel, worldwide VP and  chief supply chain officer of Johnson & Johnson, said only five per cent of jobs at her level were filled by women. To paraphrase her view on the subject, we don't need to increase the number of women for the sake of it, but it's actually a necessity because there are millions of unfilled jobs globally, not just in manufacturing but in the wider STEM sectors, and the industries can't afford to not make sure more women play a part. The way to address that, she said, is looking at what happens to put girls off the science and maths subjects early on in education, as far back as kindergarten level, and work on it throughout schooling, to stop girls getting "tracked away" from those subjects and therefore being ruled out of that kind of career.

It got me thinking about my own education, the choices I made, and how that has impacted on my own life, career wise. It is true that I was much better at all the "artsy" type subjects, English, Music, languages, traditionally associated with females, and thus likely to get better results, so my school was pretty happy for me to follow that path. I don't ever remember anyone saying to me: "If you're not going to be a teacher, jobs in those fields are pretty few and far between, and the pay and conditions are rubbish, oh and there is this thing called the Internet coming which will make a lot of them totally disappear". Joking aside, as no one really had any idea what impact the Internet was going to have when I left school way back in *gulp* 1997, you could argue that it was the school's job to get good exam results and that was it, but I wonder how different it is for today's teenage girls.

I remember a definite undertone that, as long as I got my C at GCSE maths that showed I could count to 10 without breaking into a sweat, that was sufficient, and I could spend the rest of my schooling burying my strange little head in 20th century poetry and harmonising Bach chorales to my heart's content.

I don't meet many Brit teenagers these days, but when I attend conferences, if admittedly, not the most recent one, I do come across local women who are studying for Ph.ds and carrying out research in scientific fields that I cannot even begin to explain, due to aforesaid lack of ability in science and maths. They seem to outnumber the men, although that could well be due to the fact that traditionally, more Emirati men than women choose to study abroad, and may follow those paths elsewhere. However, a speaker from Kerala, India, said that women outnumber men in science and maths subjects at universities, although, I would point out that you would need to have a look in 20-30 years' time, to see how that levels out, whether all those women with STEM degrees actually manage to sustain careers in those industries.

Anyway, I could start banging the drum here about discrimination and poor maternity provision and lack of flexible working which limit women's choices once they reach a certain stage in their lives, as God knows, I and many women I know have had experience of that in recent years, but that wasn't the point of this post. Robots, people, they're coming. And hopefully they won't be trained to recognise your skin colour, sex, age, weight, height, disability, or whatever, and treat you differently according to what they think that says about you. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no one in the driving seat

I am not known for my early adoption of technology. I am a recent convert to the Careem driver app, (local equivalent of Uber) several years after everyone else, I clung to my keypad Blackberry, with friends picking it up and saying: "I can't remember the last time I saw a phone keypad, wow," until various members of my family despaired and clubbed together and bought me an iPhone a couple of Christmases ago, and my iPad these days is mainly used for showing Peppa Pig to Desert Baby while I am preparing her dinner. You just have to ask Him Indoors - any introduction of new technology to our house is met with swearing, grumbling, sighing, denial, sometimes even weeping, wailing and fist thumping before eventually I reluctantly admit that, yes, it is more efficient than whatever it is replacing.

However, an event I covered for work recently got me thinking about what self-driving vehicles will mean for a place like Dubai and I found myself, surprisingly, to be in favour.

I will start by showing you this picture of a self-driving vehicle that was on show at the World Government Summit, a Dubai-based gathering designed to encourage dialogue between governments and to share knowledge on how to revolutionise the way they operate for the 21st century.


This, my friends, is a passenger drone, capable of carrying a 100kg person, plus a small suitcase, operated from a central command unit. Apparently test flights have already taken place, and the RTA (Dubai's Road and Transport Authority) plans to have them operational from July 2017.

I discussed it with Him Indoors, who, not being the happiest of flyers at the best of times, remarked "Hell. No," when I asked how he would feel about giving it a go - climbing into and flying around in what is effectively a giant, computerised remote control helicopter.

I, on the other hand, remember being aged around 10, living in a relatively rural village, reliant on my parents to drive me if I wanted to go anywhere - after school activities, friends' houses, the sweet shop, and I imagined this very thing. Fair dues, my imaginary metal flying carpet of (*cough* 25 years ago) had its own manual steering mechanism, and it was open air, because I hadn't got to the practicalities of what what wind chill would feel like flying through the UK East Midlands air in mid winter, but, this is very much one of those sci-fi dreams becoming reality for me.

Also at the summit were everyone's favourite real life Iron Man Elon Musk, founder of Space X and electric car manufacturer Tesla, and the tech disruption king and Uber CEO everyone currently loves to hate Travis Kalanick. I did not hear all of Musk's session, as I had to run off to cover another part of the event, but I found him engaging, although there were grumblings from the summit floor that he was not at all charismatic. Personally, I think the expectation of a metal suit wearing, super genius wise cracker muttering "doth mother know you wearest her drapes?" is a bit much for anyone to live up to.

Tesla's cars, he revealed, are already equipped to be fully autonomous, it is just a matter of upgrading the software when the time comes that self-driving cars are legally permitted on public roads. What I liked about Mr Musk was the fact that he raised the issue of what will happen to those who drive for a living once the world's cars are fully autonomous - a process he believes will take about 20 years once underway. His calculations are that it will leave 12-15% of the world's workforce unemployed.

Mr Kalanick was perhaps the more charismatic speaker of the two, but it all felt rather blue sky to me. There was wild talk of no traffic on the roads in cities like Delhi within seven years, thanks to Uber, with his assertion being that people will not bother owning cars, they will simply summon an Uber Pool, with self-driving technology being integral. You can't help but feel that the motivation to get self-driving cars on the road for Mr Kalanick is at least 49% from a desire for no pesky humans whining about their dwindling incomes.

But still, another argument for self-driving for the Uber CEO is one few could disagree with - reducing road deaths. Death, I think we can all agree, is A Bad Thing, with vehicles being responsible for 1.3 million deaths worldwide every year. I don't know what percentage of those deaths are due to human error at the wheel, but if Dubai is anything to go by, it's a lot of them, with examples of poor driving such as tailgating never far from the agenda when it comes to road safety. That is why I personally would be in favour of self-driving car technology on the roads. Yes, it is the rise of the machines, and another example of an over-reliance on computers and technology for our daily lives, and yes, we stand to lose the skills that have given us independence, ie, driving a vehicle, but honestly, even six years down the line, I still find the dreadful driving standards on the UAE roads hair-raising. I am used to it, in that if you were my passenger, you wouldn't know that I find it hair-raising, but tailgating, cutting up, racing away from traffic lights, ignoring road markings and the frequent near misses that go with them are the norm, not the exception.

I covered another event in Abu Dhabi not long ago, and the 200 mile round trip commute, on top of sleepless nights thanks to one of Desert Baby's night-time party phases, was, frankly speaking, dangerous. Allowing a computer, programmed only to get the passenger to their destination safely, on a road with only other computers programmed to get their passengers to their destinations safely, without the human ego-fueled speed freak lunacy of the driving experience in the UAE, can only be a good thing as far as I am concerned.


Monday, February 6, 2017

Arrivederci, Ma'a salama and Farewell to Barnaby

One of the ways I spend my time here is trying to gain publicity for the Dubai Chamber Orchestra - a lovely bunch of professional and amateur musicians who are kind enough to let me saw away badly in the violin or viola section (depending on requirements) each Wednesday night and join them for concerts, even though I am usually late every week due to having to wait for Him Indoors to get home from work to look after Desert Baby so I can leave for rehearsal. 



In recent weeks, I have tried and failed magnificently to get various newspapers, magazines and websites interested in writing about the departure of our dear conductor and musical director Barnaby Priest, who conducted his final concert with us on Thursday, 2nd February, after more than eight years in charge. I am not sure why I failed, probably because I am not as efficient as I used to be post-Desert Baby, but also, I suspect, due to the fact that staff at most media outlets now barely have time to lift their heads up from inboxes bulging with press releases about the latest incontinence pants, "clean eating" diets and the most recent cacophony created by one Donald J Trump. Grrr, the state of 21st century journalism, etc. 


Another reason they were less than interested may be that that saying goodbye is a regular part of life for us expats here in Dubai - the majority of us are only here because we (or in our case Him Indoors) have something useful to contribute to society or business, and we are granted a visa to live and work here (I don't, I am a burden on society, I am on a spousal visa but that's another story).

 These figures, published last year, suggest that just 11 per cent of the 9 million odd population are actually UAE Nationals, with the biggest nationality group Indians at 28 per cent and Pakistanis at 13 per cent. Presumably the Brits are lumped in with "all other nationalities", although I've seen suggestions that the numbers in Dubai alone are in the hundreds of thousands. So basically, unless you do something pretty special, when retirement comes around, if you are not being sponsored by someone else, you are out. 



I digress, as the purpose of this post, then, due to my magnificent failure to do it elsewhere, is to say Shukran and Ma'a Salama to Barnaby, who has been the fearless leader of the Dubai Chamber Orchestra since 2008. 

The Dubai Chamber Orchestra is an impressive 13 and a half years old now, which is positively ancient by Dubai standards - Barnaby joined the orchestra in 2005, sitting in the viola section - that most mocked of instruments - sample joke:   

                         What's the difference between a viola and a coffin?
                         The coffin has the dead person on the inside.

Then he took over as musical director. I can only speak for the time since I joined in around 2011 or 2012, but I have always been staggered by his commitment - choosing repertoire, organising concert dates and venues, sourcing sheet music, badgering us all to turn up every week, and he has gone beyond that - composing and arranging music for the orchestra, and this is all on top of a full time job working at a university.  


I may have raised an eyebrow at some of his more unorthodox repertoire choices from time to time, but I can honestly say I have never looked back on any of our concerts and thought "well, that really didn't work". It's a long time since I've had stage fright, as I have been playing music in one form or another for (cough) 32 years, but I have never been so frightened in all my life as I was the night we played the really quite difficult Shostakovitch Chamber Symphony at our 10th anniversary concert. But, Barnaby has always managed to make it work in the end, it has always been alright on the night. 



It is a huge challenge conducting an orchestra in a place like Dubai. As I explained previously, most of us are here at the whim of some multinational company or other, so the orchestra line up changes on a season by season basis. Barnaby has always managed to search through his encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral repertoire and think of something that can be played by 10 violins, 3 violas, a couple of flutes, one oboe, two horns and a trumpet, or whoever happens to be available that season, or persuade absent or new players to join and make up the numbers. Or, failing that, he composes or arranges something himself. Just that one sentence alone sums up how incredibly lucky we have been to have someone like him in charge.



Harking back to my own early experiences of the orchestra, it's fair to say we have come a long way in five short years. When I joined, I am not sure I had opened my violin case for several years, but decided joining an orchestra would be a nice way to meet some new, like-minded friends. I turned up to Safa Private School and scraped away at the back of the violins really quite abysmally, my fingers stiff and unaccustomed to finding the notes and my bowing arm aching like crazy after just two short hours of rehearsal. I felt pretty discouraged by my horribly inept playing and considered leaving and never coming back, but I sidled up to Barnaby for a chat at the half-time break, and he said: "Can we do this over a cup of tea? I'm absolutely parched." 



It was if a window had opened in the ceiling and the sunlight poured in at that very moment (it hadn't, it was evening, but suspend your disbelief, damnit)  - the use of English colloquialism "parched", said with the ever so slight Southern England twang, - the desire to drink hot tea for refreshment even though it was several billion degrees Celsius outside. It was like coming home. "I think I am going to like it here," I said to myself. 


Since then I have played in as many concerts as I could when not heavily pregnant or dying of baby-related exhaustion, the orchestra's audience has swelled in size and enthusiasm, with us frequently receiving standing ovations. We have moved to a new rehearsal venue, the superb Centre for Musical Arts, and each season, I have watched new players arrive and be greeted with warmth, kindness and enthusiasm by Barnaby. 

Being allowed to play in the orchestra, in such a supportive, friendly environment, has done a huge amount for me - it opened the door to paid work as a musician, something I never would have had the opportunity for back home, including with the UAE's flagship orchestra, the NSO, and met and made friends I am sure I will keep for life.  I will always be grateful to Barnaby for those opportunities, because without him, they would simply have never happened. I am sure I am not the only one who can say that. 

Thank you, Barnaby, safe travels, and viva la musica





Wednesday, January 18, 2017

We are gold!

Living in a place with the international reputation for excess that Dubai has, you often hear the phrase "Only in Dubai" bandied about the place. There's the police super cars, the gold vending machines, the gold-laced and super expensive foods, and the sometimes but not always unfair reputation for coating everything that will stay still in gold. It won't surprise you to know that the super-glitz hyper-expensive side of life is of little relevance to us ordinary Dubai-residents, but every now and then, something happens to you that you know would never happen to you anywhere else in the world.

I have been debating writing about this as I am worried that you mere mortals may read it and then come and flex to my crib one night and steal all my swag. That's right, the vain usage of out-of-date street slang will give you a clue as to what is occurring here, yes that's right, Him Indoors and I have finally made it in Dubai, we have finally accessed the pot of gold that everyone thinks is going to fall into their lap when they move here. Yes, we have won gold.



Or for those of you with more, ahem, mature tastes:



How did we win gold? You may ask.
Well, first of all, here is a picture of the stupendous riches of which we are now in possession. Don't get too excited. Don't start the begging charity letters just yet, but here you go:



Calm down!

Stop rubbing your hands with glee, Gollum!

Four whole grams of gold! We are surely in the money, that must be worth, millions????? No?...... OK. Thousands.......? ... No, hundre....d????s OK, one hundred, $160USish depending on the gold price. Well, it's better than a slap in the face with a wet fish isn't it?

Let's face it, we would have to be in pretty dire financial straits for the bother of heading down to Dubai's Gold and Diamond Park in order to cash it in.

Goldie, as I have named him, was our reward for buying a massive shiny new fridge-freezer. We have been in Dubai well over six years now, and try as hard as you like, some of the sheer Dubai-ness of it starts to rub off on you and you gravitate towards the big and shiny.  But, it's not that bad. Despite having moved house, oh, I don't know, 11 billion times at the last count, Him Indoors and I have only ever bought two fridges in our time. The first was for our most recent old flat - our first flat ever to have not a stick of furniture, no fitted kitchen, no appliances, no nothing, so, having just dropped a minimum of AED 10,000 (2,200GBP at current exchange rates) for the privilege of moving house, we bought the rubbishest cheapest fridge we could find, which lasted a while, then we stored a large amount of fresh vegetables from Kibsons (don't judge us, we haven't become w***ers, it actually works out cheaper than the supermarket) in it, and it basically wet itself, by which I mean it sprung some kind of leak and set about urinating water all over all of our food and generally stopped being a fridge and became more of a cold swamp.

So, as we have a small child now, who requires about eight litres of fresh milk per day, and we do, *eugh, I really hate this phrase, it's bandied about on mum forums by martyrish witches who suddenly turn into Martha effing Stewart the second they reproduce*, "batch cooking" (vomits) it seemed a good idea to get a massive fridge-freezer. And because it was during the Dubai Shopping Festival, it has been decreed that he/she who spends a large amount of dosh at Carrefour in Mirdif Centre shall receive several scratch cards with which they can win gold if successful. Actual gold. And sure enough, one of them told us that we had won four grams of gold. So, off we went to the Carrefour cash desk to receive our prize, with Him Indoors saying: "They're not actually going to give us gold, that would be silly, they're just going to give us the cash equivalent of what the gold price is to.... Oh. No, they have given us gold, an actual gold coin. Bizarre."

What are we going to do with Goldie? I don't know. One idea is, that we could melt him down and make him into something nice for Desert Baby. Or we could just keep hold of him, chuckle to ourselves occasionally at his existence, and vaguely consider cashing him in if the gold price reaches an all time high, but actually never get round to it. That. That is what will happen to him, I expect.
But now, it is definitely one of our best "Only in Dubai" anecdotes - the time we won gold because we bought a fridge at the supermarket.