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Brett Nordquist (Customer Experience Engineer)

I Got Schooled by a Group of 7th Graders

Written on February 17, 2017 by Brett Nordquist

If you're feeling overconfident in your public speaking skills, step into a class full of 7th graders. They are a tough crowd. 

That's what I did last week when my daughter's "Career & Technology" teacher asked me speak to her class about my work in technology. I prepared a 15-minute presentation that covered my years at Microsoft, a couple of startups, and positions at Puget Systems. 

When it was my turn, I stood in front of 25 students who stared back at me. The computers on their desks were locked. Not a cell phone in sight. I had their attention, but for how long? 

I began with a story about my friend who worked as a welder for Audi in Germany. For over fifteen years, he welded specific areas of the chassis as it  moved down the assembly line. Over time, auto manufacturers introduced unibody chassis and used materials that didn't require as much welding. 

The students could see where the story was headed.

Within a few years, a robot that could perform my friend's job took over, and my friend moved to a position in their warehouse. As part of his new job, he organized, prepared and inventoried thousands of different parts. The work wasn't as interesting as what he used to do on the assembly line. But it was a job, and he's not one to complain. 

Over time, automation found its way into the warehouse. My friend began working alongside robots that could organize, sort and retrieve parts at a much faster pace than he could. The robots never got sick, went on strike or showed up late for work. 

Again, the students could see where the story was headed. 

You might ask why I decided to share a story like this with a group of young students. I wanted to get their attention, but I also wanted to get their minds working. I wanted them to think about what they will study when they go off to college. I wanted them to understand that, when it comes to jobs, there are no guarantees. My goal wasn't to scare them, but I wanted them to understand that technological advances are changing careers and putting some people out of work. 

Each week, I get to hear how our customers are using the computers we built for them. I recently finished a project where I spoke with customers using their computers to conduct deep learning. It was humbling to hear them share their stories with me. So I decided to share a few of these stories with the students. I told them I worked for a company that built workstations that were being used for the following: 

  • To customize treatments for cancer. 
  • To create neural art to get student excited about deep learning. 
  • To process and map genes.  
  • To analyze traffic to make our streets safer. 
  • To recognize patterns in x-rays that lead to quickler diagnosis. 

As you can imagine, the students had a lot of questions about what it takes to perform this type of work. That morphed into a discussion about what types of jobs computers will take over in the next few years. They decided that we won't need taxi drivers or checkers at the grocery store anymore. 

I wrapped up my presentation by telling them about how I've always wanted to be writer. I told them how I started a blog back in 1999, but only began earning money by writing a couple of years ago. "There are no shortcuts", I told them. Immediately, a boy in the back raised his hand. 

"Do you think a computer will eventually do your job?" 

The students laughed. I should have expected that question, but it hadn't crossed my mind. 

"I don't know", I shrugged. 

Not exactly a brave answer on my part. The teacher saw an opportunity and jumped in. "As you begin to think about college and your career, that's a question you'd be wise to ask yourself." 

You could hear a pin drop. 

With all the political drama we've experienced over the past few months, I walked out of the school that day with a lot of hope for our future. Don't underestimate our youth because they create goofy stories on Snapchat or communicate with emojis. These kids are smart. They are creative and passionate. They ask a lot of questions and expect answers. 

And if a computer is ever able to perform my job, it could be one of them that programs it. 

Tags: Education. Teaching, Technology

Great post Brett! It makes me think...if one is in a profession that is only a matter of time before automation takes over...what an incredible opportunity they have right now to be a leader in their field and help shape and design that automation. That actually challenges me personally...I can either let change run me over, or I can get ahead of, lead and drive that change. How can I apply that thinking to Puget Systems? Great to think about! I think you have quite a few years left before the machines take over creative writing though :) I hope!

Posted on 2017-02-17 20:47:06

It was a wake-up call for me when I read about Facebook replacing all their news editors with computer algorithms that created "stories" based on likes and links. It didn't exactly work out well for Facebook, but that doesn't mean Google or Microsoft can't pull it off down the road. No matter the industry, we have to improve if we are going to stay ahead of curve.

Posted on 2017-02-20 19:59:44

I wonder, speaking philosophically: of course AI can be trained to string words together, just as they can be trained to recognize faces or whatnot, but is there any meaning behind it? When a human author writes, there is meaning behind the words that is more than the sum of just the words themselves. Words are just a way we convey thought so that others can understand it. If an AI puts together words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and potentially paragraphs into whole stories - will that truly be creative writing? Will AI be able to pick a thought, idea, moral, etc that they want to convey ahead of time and then craft the words around that?

The same question comes up when discussing AI creating art. Sure, it may look beautiful: but does it have the same value if there isn't a meaning or purpose behind it? Or will AI eventually be able to dig deep enough to create the meaning as well?

Posted on 2017-02-20 20:08:03

It's fascinating to think what AI and Deep Learning will be able to do in just a few years. As you mentioned, AI can assemble words and create sentences to a somewhat convincing degree. What AI isn't good at (yet) is creating or telling compelling stories. That's where the human touch, human spirit, or whatever we call it comes in, and the jury is still out whether a machine can mimic a human to that degree. I believe that someone like myself who makes a living by writing is often too close to the subject and probably too defensive to believe that a machine could replace myself. It's probably more likely than I believe, but far enough down the road that it won't affect me as much. What worries me the most is whether there's a point where the machine does a "good enough" job or get close enough that it wouldn't matter to most readers. That's my biggest worry today.

Posted on 2017-02-21 00:02:27

I agree with Jon: Great post, Brett!
My last job was as a fire chief at a department at a community college. My firefighters were students at the school. While I believe fire fighting will always depend upon manipulative skills, and physical labor, I always counseled my staff to take coursework in STEM and business, along with their fire science classes. Not only would such course work help them get promoted, it also provided a fall-back in case they lost their job due to layoff, or, heaven forbid, an accident.

As with Brett's 7th. graders; these young folks are smart, creative, and passionate. It was as much a pleasure to learn from them, as they learned from me.

Posted on 2017-02-17 23:12:03

Thank you, Preston! I like your counsel to your budding firefighters. I'd never considered their jobs being taken over by technology, but your point about being prepared in case of an accident is one we can all learn from. I have 3 kids in their teens now who are just beginning to consider what type of subjects they'd like to study. I hope to further these type of discussions with them as they get closer to college age.

Posted on 2017-02-20 19:55:18