In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted we’d be having 15-hour workweeks by the end of the century. But by the time it was 2013, it was clear the great economist had gotten something wrong.
Welcome to the era of bullshit jobs, as anthropologist David Graeber coined it. Since the 1930s, whole new industries have sprung up, which don’t necessarily add much value to our lives. Graeber would probably call most jobs in software development bullshit.
I don’t share Graeber’s opinion, especially when it comes to software. But he does touch an interesting point: as more and more processes are automated, most jobs are obsolete at some point. According to one estimate, 45 percent of all jobs could be automated using current technology. And over time, they probably will.
In software development, where things move pretty fast anyway, you can see this happen in real-time: as soon as software testing became a hot topic, automation tools started springing up. And this is just one of the many areas where the bullshit-parts — the parts that are iterative and time-consuming — of software has been automated away.
This begs the question, though, whether developers are making themselves obsolete by building automation tools. If more and more machines can write code for themselves, what do we need humans for?
From designing logic to designing minds
Software developers are builders at heart. They build logical links, algorithms, programs, projects, and more. The point is: they build logical stuff.
With the rise of artificial intelligence, we’re seeing a paradigm shift though. Developers aren’t designing logical links anymore. Instead, they’re training models on the heuristic of these logical links.
Many developers have gone from building logic to building minds. To put it differently, more and more software developers are taking on the activities of data scientists.
The three levels of automation
If you’ve ever used an IDE, then you know how amazing assisted software development can be. Once you’ve gotten used to features like autocomplete or semantic code search, you don’t want to go without them again.
This is the first area of automation in software development. As machines understand what you’re trying to implement, they can help you through the process.
The second area is that of closed systems. Consider a social media app: it consists of many different pages that are linked among each other. However, it’s closed insofar as it isn’t designed to directly communicate with another service.
Although the technology for building such an app is getting more and more easy to use, we can’t speak of real automation yet. As of now, you need to be able to code if you want to create dynamic pages, use variables, apply security rules, or integrate databases.
The third and last area is that of integrated systems. The API of a bank, for example, is such a system since it is built to communicate with other services. At this point in time, however, it’s pretty impossible to automate ATM integrations, communications, world models, deep security, and complex troubleshooting issues.
The world through a computer’s eyes
When asked whether they’ll be replaced by a robot in the future, human workers often don’t think so. This applies to software development as well as many other areas.
Their reason is clear: qualities like creativity, empathy, collaboration, or critical thinking are not what computers are good at.
But often, that’s not what matters to get a job done. Even the most complex projects consist of many small parts that can be automated. DeepMind scientist Richard S. Sutton puts it like this:
Researchers seek to leverage their human knowledge of the domain, but the only thing that matters in the long run is the leveraging of computation.
Don’t get me wrong; human qualities are amazing. But we’ve been overestimating the importance of these problems when it comes to regular tasks. For a long time, for example, even researchers believed that machines would never be able to recognize a cat on a photo.
Nowadays, a single machine can categorize billions of photos at a time, and with a greater accuracy than a human. While a machine might be unable to marvel at the cuteness of a little cat, it’s excellent at working with undefined states. That’s what a photo of a kitten is through a machine’s eyes: an undefined state.
Towards new manifolds and scales
In addition to working with undefined states, there are two other things that computers can do more efficiently than humans: firstly, doing things at a scale. Secondly, working on novel manifolds.
We’ve all experienced how well computers work at a scale. For example, if you ask a computer to
print("I am so stupid") two-hundred times, it will do so without complaining, and complete the task in a fraction of a second. Ask a human, and you’ll need to wait for hours to get the job done…
Manifolds are basically a fancy, or mathematical, way of referring to subsets of space that share particular properties. For example, if you take a piece of paper, that’s a two-dimensional manifold in three-dimensional space. If you scrunch up the piece of paper or fold it to a plane, it’s still a manifold.
It turns out that computers are really good at working in manifolds that humans find hard to visualize, for example because they extend into twenty dimensions or have lots of complicated kinks and edges. Since many everyday problems, like human language or computer code, can be expressed as a mathematical manifold, there is a lot of potential to deploy really efficient products in the future.
It might seem like developers are already using a lot of automations. But we’re only at the cusp of software automation. Automating integrated systems is almost impossible as of today. But other areas are already being automated.
For one, code reviews and debugging might soon be a thing of the past. Swiss company DeepCode is working on a tool for automatic bug identification. Google’s DeepMind can already recommend more elegant solutions for existing code. And Facebook’s Aroma can autocomplete small programs on its own.
What’s more, the Machine Inferred Code Similarity System, short MISIM, claims to be able to understand computer code in the same way that Alexa or Siri can understand human language. This is exciting because such a system could allow developers to automate common and time-consuming tasks, such as pushing code to the cloud or implementing compliance processes.
So far, all these automations work great on small projects, but are quite useless on more complex ones. For example, bug identification software is still returning many false positives, and autocompletion doesn’t work if the project has a very novel goal.
Since MISIM hasn’t been around for a long time, the jury is still out on this automation. However, you’ll need to keep in mind that these are the very beginnings, and these tools are expected to become a lot more powerful in the future.
Some early applications of these new automations could include tracking human activity. This isn’t meant like a spy-software, of course; rather, things like scheduling the hours of a worker or individualizing the lessons for a student could be optimized this way.
This, in itself, presents huge economic opportunities because students could learn the important stuff faster, and workers could serve during the hours in which they happen to be more productive.
If MISIM is as good as it promises, it could also be used to rewrite legacy code. For example, lots of banking and government software is written in COBOL, which is hardly taught today. Translating this code into a newer language would make it easier to maintain.
So, how can developers and corporations can stay ahead of the curve?
All these new applications are exciting. But above them looms a big Damocles’ sword: what if the competition makes use of those automations before you catch on? What if they make developers totally obsolete?
Investing in continuous delivery and automated testing
These are certainly two buzzwords in the world of automation. But they’re important nevertheless.
If you don’t test your software before releases, you might be compromising the user experience or encounter security issues down the road. And experience shows that automated testing covers cases that human testers didn’t even think of although they might have been crucial.
Continuous delivery is a practice that more and more teams are picking up, and for good reason. When you bundle lots and lots of features and only release an update, say, once every three months, you often spend the next few months fixing everything that got broken in the process. Not only is this way of working a big hindrance for speedy development, it also compromises the user experience.
There’s plenty of automation software for testing, and there’s version control (and many other frameworks) for continuous delivery. In most cases, it seems better to pay for these automations than to build them yourself. After all, your developers were hired to build new projects, not to automate boring tasks.
If you’re a manager, consider these purchases an investment. By doing so, you’re supporting your developers the best you can because you’re capitalizing on what they’re really good at.
The left shift: including developers in the early stages of every project
Oftentimes, projects get created somewhere in upper management or close to the R&D-team, and then get passed down until they reach the development team — which then has the task of making this project idea real.
However, since not every project manager is also a seasoned software engineer, some parts of the project might be implementable by the development team, while others would be costly or pretty much impossible.
That approach may have been legitimate in the past. But as lots of the monotonous parts of software development — yes, those parts exist! — are being automated, developers are getting a chance to get more and more creative.
This is an excellent chance to move developers left, i.e., involving them in the planning stages of a project. Not only to they know what can be implemented and what can’t. With their creativity, they might add value in ways that are not imaginable a priori.
Make software a top priority
It’s been a brief five years since Microsoft’s Satya Nadella proclaimed that “every business will be a software business”. He was right.
Not only should developers shift left in management. Software should shift up in priorities.
If the current pandemic taught you anything, then it is that much of life, and value creation, happens online these days.
Software is king. Paradoxically, this becomes more apparent the more of it gets automated.
The bottom line: geeks are becoming leaders
When I was at school, people who liked computers were deemed unsociable kids, nerds, geeks, unlikeable creatures, and zombie-like beings devoid of human feelings and passions. I really wish I were exaggerating.
The more time is progressing, however, the more people are seeing the other sides of developers. People who code are not regarded as nerds any more, but rather as smart folks who can build cool stuff.
Software is gaining more power the more it’s being automated. In that sense, your fear of losing your developer job due to automation is largely unfounded.
Sure, in a decade — in a few months even — you’ll probably be doing things that you can’t even imagine right now. But that doesn’t mean that your job will go away. Rather, it will be upgraded.
The fear that you really need to conquer is not that you might lose your job. What you need to shake off is the fear of the unknown.
Developers, you won’t be obsolete. You just won’t be nerds that much longer. Rather, you’ll become leaders.
Here’s why scientists think women are better suited to space travel
Are women better astronauts than men? This question will become central to the selection of crews to the Moon, Mars, and beyond as we undertake the colonization of space.
In the struggle for gender equality, women have already proven they are capable of doing anything — including conquering space, showing that not even the sky is the limit for their success.
“The first all-women spacewalk at the International Space Station was carried out in October of 2019 and many other milestones have already been accomplished by women astronauts. But there has yet to be a first woman on the moon (or on Mars),” Katharina Buchholz writes for Statista.
The first woman in space
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova was born in Russia, in 1937. At the age of 18, working at a textile factory, she designed parachutes to aid her love of skydiving.
In the early 1960’s, the Soviet and American space programs were each engaged in reaching milestones in space exploration, attempting to upstage their adversary. Striving to beat the United States in sending the first woman in space, Soviet officials selected Tereshkova to become the first woman in space.
Tereshkova was launched into space on June 16, 1963, aboard the spacecraft Vostok 6. After 3 days, Vostok 6 reentered the atmosphere, culminating in Tereshkova successfully parachuting to Earth after ejecting at 20,000 feet. (This was standard for cosmonauts at the time).
“After her historic space flight, Valentina Tereshkova received the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union awards… In 1966, Tereshkova became a member of the Supreme Soviet, the USSR’s national parliament, and she served as the Soviet representative to numerous international women’s organizations and events. She never entered space again, and hers was the last space flight by a woman cosmonaut until the 1980s,” The History Channel reports.
Although women successfully trained as American astronauts in the 1960’s, It took 15 years for the U.S. to fully accept women in their astronaut corps. In 1978, NASA approved six women to become the first woman astronauts of the U.S. space program.
One of them was Sally Ride, a doctor in physics who became part of the STS-7 crew on April 30, 1982, serving as a mission specialist. She was also the first American woman astronaut to return to space a second time, in 1984.
“Ride again made history when she became the first American woman to fly to space a second time on October 5, 1984, on shuttle mission STS-41G, where she was part of a seven-member crew that spent eight days in space. Another woman, mission specialist Kathryn D. Sullivan, was also part of that crew, making it the first NASA space flight with two women aboard (Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space during that mission),
The History Channel reports.
After that, more than 59 women including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists, and foreign nationals have flown in space, and several other women astronauts are now preparing to take their first flight beyond Earth.
Despite enormous progress, since Sally Ride took her first flight, over 80% of the astronauts are still men. The 2013 class of incoming astronauts were the first to reach a 50/50 division of women to men.
Advantages of flying women astronauts
There are some reasons suggesting that women astronauts may perform better than men in some respects, including:
- Women are lighter: Sending too much weight to space requires fuel, costing a lot of money. Having more women on the crew could help reduce the cost of space travel.
- Women eat fewer calories and use fewer resources: When you plan to send humans to Mars, it may be a good idea to have more women on the crew because they require 15 to 25% fewer energy calories than men. They also expend less energy despite possessing similar activity levels. Additionally, because women are (on average) smaller than men, they produce less waste (CO2 and body excretions), making it easier for the spacecraft systems to recycle it.
- Space traveling affects men and women differently: Due to the effects of microgravity and radiation, space-traveling can have several implications on astronaut’s health. It seems that men are less affected by space motion sickness than women, but men are quicker to experience diminished hearing. Men also have a higher risk of vision problems, while women tend to have more urinary tract infections.
- Women can give birth: One idea for the long-term colonization of space is to send an all-women crew to Mars or other colonies. This would reduce travel costs, as an all-women crew to reproduce over time through artificial means.
“More significantly, men tend to have problems with deteriorating vision, which women don’t experience as often or as severely. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly — who has spent a cumulative 520 days in space and has the eye problems to prove it — half-jokingly wrote in his autobiography that if scientists can’t figure out what’s causing those eye issues, ‘we just might have to send an all-women crew to Mars,’” Nadia Drake writes for National Geographic.
Women have already proven to be great astronauts. However, there have not yet been enough studies to conclude whether or not women should make up most — or all — of the first colonists to space.
Astronomy News with The Cosmic Companion is also available as a weekly podcast, carried on all major podcast providers. Tune in every Tuesday for updates on the latest astronomy news, and interviews with astronomers and other researchers working to uncover the nature of the Universe.
Yale may have just turned institutional investing on its head with a new diversity edict
It could be the long-awaited turning point in the world of venture capital and beyond. Yale, whose $32 billion endowment has long been led since 1985 by the legendary investor David Swensen, just let its 70 money managers across a variety of asset classes know that for the school, diversity has now moved front and center.
According to the WSJ, Swensen has told the firms that from here on out, they be measured annually on their progress in increasing the diversity of their investment staff, meaning their hiring, training, mentoring and retention of women and minorities.
Those that show little improvement may see the university pull its money, Swensen tells the outlet.
It’s hard to overstate the move’s apparent significance. Though the endowment saw atypically poor performance last year, Swensen, at 66, is the most highly regarded endowment manager in the world, growing Yale’s endowment from $1 billion when he joined as a 31-year-old former grad student of the school, to the second-largest school endowment in the country today after Harvard, which currently manages $40 billion.
Credited for developing the so-called Yale Model, which is short on public equities and long on commitments to venture shops, private equity funds, hedge funds, and international investments, Swensen has inspired legions of other endowment managers, many of whom worked with him previously, including the current endowment heads at Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania.
It isn’t a stretch to imagine that they will again follow Swensen’s lead, which could go a long way in changing the stubbornly intractable world of money management, which remains mostly white and mostly male across asset classes.
While the dearth of woman and minorities within the ranks of venture firms may not be news to readers, a 2019 study commissioned by the Knight Foundation and cited by the WSJ found that women- and minority-owned firms held less than 1% of assets managed by mutual funds, hedge funds, private-equity funds and real-estate funds in 2017, even though their performance was on a par with such firms.
Swensen tells that WSJ that he has long talked about diversity with the fund managers to which the endowment commits capital, but that he had he held of anything systematic owing to a belief, in part, that there were not enough diverse candidate entering into asset management for a mandate to make sense.
After the Black Lives Movement gained momentum this spring, he decided it was time to take the leap.
What about that perceived pipeline concern? Fund managers will have to figure it out if they. For his part, says the WSJ, Swensen suggested to the U.S. managers that they forget the standard resume and consider recruiting directly from college campuses.
How Riot used tech from The Mandalorian to build Worlds’ astonishing mixed reality stage
After a hard-fought win over Korean team Gen.G, all five members of Europe’s G2 Esports stood at the edge of a pool of clear, glistening water to take a bow and celebrate their victory. Two members then picked up their star teammate, Rasmus “Caps” Borregaard Winther, and held him over the water, as if to throw him overboard. It’s a good thing they didn’t — despite how real the water may have looked to viewers, it was nothing but pixels.
The annual League of Legends World Championship is currently underway in Shanghai, and like most major events, it has had to be re-envisioned in order to be possible in our new pandemic-dominated reality. Typically, the early stages of the tournament are something of a traveling road show, with different rounds taking place in different cities. In 2020, things had to change.
With travel restrictions in place, and fans no longer able to attend matches, the team at League developer Riot tried something different. They built out a set made up of massive LED screens in a technology setup similar to what Disney used to create The Mandalorian’s sci-fi landscapes. It has been used to startling effect. Matches have looked like they’ve taken place in a cloudy, cyberpunk Shanghai skyline or amid a flooded landscape. What could have been a drab competition in the absence of fans has turned into perhaps the most impressive Worlds in recent memory.
“There are any number of days where we come to the set and say ‘Wait, I don’t think this has ever been done before.’ You just kind of get used to it after a while,” says Michael Figge, creative director at Possible Productions, which partnered with Riot on the event.
The feat is all the more impressive when you consider the compressed schedule. Typically, producers from Riot and Possible spend well over a year planning for Worlds, but that simply wasn’t possible this year. It wasn’t until May that the decision was made to utilize this tech in a studio without fans.
The setup is a powerhouse, and Riot says that the LED screens — there are more than 900 LED tiles in total — display visuals at 32K resolution and at 60 frames per second. Those visuals were made using a modified version of the Unreal Engine, and in total, the team is made up of 40 artists and technicians. Nick Troop, executive producer for Worlds 2020 at Riot, describes it as “a creative tool that gives us effectively infinite power to manifest whatever our collective imaginations bring to the fore.” And he says one of the most important elements of the whole setup is the way things are shot, powered by four specialized cross-reality cameras.
“Rather than having a single projected camera perspective, we actually have two running simultaneously, effectively all of the time,” he explains. This allows the broadcast team to work in a more traditional way; they can swap between the two simulated perspectives at will, using four cameras to shoot the action on set. “It means that the broadcast team can do what feels to them what feels like a ‘normal television show,’ but in this curated, and beautiful series of environments,” says Troop.
For viewers watching on Twitch or YouTube, the LED soundstage is transformed into a sprawling fantasy world, with AR technology used to make the images expand beyond just the screens. You still see players sitting at desks and playing, but their surroundings are quite elaborate. In a nod to the current state of League of Legends, where four elemental dragons are of pivotal importance in a game, each of the four preliminary rounds of Worlds was styled with a different element.
Initially, there were lots of crumbling rocks and mountains to represent the earth dragon; this was followed by the cloudy Shanghai skyline for the air dragons; later, the set appeared to be flooded with water that stretched on forever. This weekend, during the two semi-finals games, things will shift to fire.
While this technology has been used before, most notably on The Mandalorian, this is the first time it’s been done live. “Pretty much every [cross-reality] expression that has been broadcast to this point has not been live,” explains Possible’s Figge, whose company has worked on everything from Super Bowl halftime shows to Justin Bieber concerts. “It’s been pre-shot, similar to a lot of AR stuff for awards shows in North America. It’s risky to do live. We’re doing up to 10 hours a day of live television on this stage. There’s no second chance at it.”
One of the challenges was balancing the desire to make things look cool without interfering with the players. Everyone onstage — teams, coaches, and support staff — has a somewhat different visual experience than viewers at home, since the AR elements only appear for viewers at home. This turned into something of an advantage for the broadcast team.
“When we do these games, it’s really important for the competitive integrity of the sport for the players not to be able to see the game on the Jumbotron or anything like that. It’s a really difficult design problem,” says Figge. “With this stage, everything that’s above a certain level of height on the stage is completely virtual. It’s augmented reality. So we have the game playing in the background and the players can’t see it.”
That said, while players don’t get the full experience viewers do, it was still important that being onstage felt special. This is the World Championship, after all, something teams from across the globe have been striving for all year long. Without the roar of a crowd to hype up players, the spectacle of a vibrant fantasy backdrop is a solid second option. Those onstage can’t see the AR elements, but they can see the graphics on the screens around them. “It helps ground the player,” says Troop. “They can still have a sense of the [game] world reacting, in a way that I think helps with their Worlds experience. There is a certain mindset that comes from being on stage, and we wanted to preserve that.”
In most years, the technical showcase of Worlds is reserved for the opening ceremonies at the finals. In the past, that’s included an AR K-pop concert and a holographic hip-hop performance. It’s still not clear what this year’s big show will look like (though it will likely involve K-pop again), but you could argue that the early rounds have already stolen the show thanks to this new technology. Each round even opened with its own mini ceremony, featuring choreographed dances set in the fantasy realm; performers jumped across crumbling stone bridges and twirled around with magical spells. Despite the circumstances, Riot turned what could have been a low-key edition of Worlds into a surprisingly memorable one.
“It’s been more educational than frustrating,” says Troop of the experience so far.
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