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June 9th, 2019

Responsibility: Yours Whether You Want It Or Not

So I’m told, once upon a time in the old west, some good folks decided executing criminals was an act they could not morally put upon another human. To make someone into an executioner, even if the sentence was arrived at in a completely legal and prudent way, was morally wrong. So they devised a system, whereby the condemned would be made to stand on a trap door, the noose around their neck, and their weight would cause a valve to open and water would drain out of a bucket until a lever dropped far enough the trap door would open and the sentence was carried out. There…no human hand pulled the lever, so nobody had that death on their hands. It was the condemned’s own weight that did it. Our hands are clean. We are not responsible.

One of my first jobs as a contract software developer was at my local utility company’s household appliances division, which sold and serviced everything from washing machines to central heating and air conditioning systems. A couple years into the work I was tasked with developing a work measurement reporting system for the field technicians, to work in conjunction with the new mobile data terminals they were installing in the field technician’s trucks. The idea, as it was told to me, was to treat each field technician as a “virtual business”. Track what the expenses were in terms of parts and labor, track the revenue in terms of billing and whether it was a warranty job.

The techs who were, luckily for them, unionized, forced considerations as to the difficulty of the work, and the skills of the technician. If you only did a few jobs that week, but they were among the most demanding, that was factored into the system. It took them 18 months to reach an agreement as to how the system should measure the profitability of the field technicians. I gave them a system that crunched the numbers from their mobile data terminals, the warranty system and the payroll system, just the way they spec’ed it out. But by then it was starting to make me a bit nervous. I was still pretty new at this trade, but I’d started at it by building my own computers from parts and teaching myself how to write programs, and I knew intuitively that there was nothing really all that special about them. They were machines, just with transistors instead of gears and motors. Bazillions of transistors that could do bazillions of calculations in a fraction of a second…but still machines. Tools, in other words. Helpful when used right, dangerous when used carelessly. 

Under all this was the utility company trying to prove that it wasn’t subsidising their household appliances division from the utility side of the company which was a protected monopoly. The appliance division technicians could also do utility side work when needed, or when they didn’t have any appliance work to do that week. All the independent contractors hated the big utility company for this because it gave the utility company a massive competitive advantage over them. Which of course, it denied.

Until they saw the first run of my reporting system. So I was told later, jaws dropped in the boardroom when they saw how much the utility side was actually subsidising the household appliances division. So plans were made to spin it off, before state regulators stepped in.

And then the layoffs came. And they used my reporting system to tell them who were the most costly and least productive field technicians to lay off. And I kept telling anyone who would listen that you can’t just blindly let a blind, deterministic, computer algorithm substitute for managerial judgement. But who listens to a little computer geek? So I saw a lot of good people get laid off, and a few not so good ones stay on board. One really nice guy, who always had a smile for me whenever we crossed paths in the hallways, died so I was told, when he had a heart attack just a couple days after being laid off. He was at the dinner table with the rest of his family and suddenly keeled over. I think about this. Lots.

This is Silicon Valley’s biggest blind spot. Well…this and libertarianism, which is so closely related they might as well be one and the same. Just get the algorithm right and everything magically takes care of itself.  It was my own hallucination back in my Ayn Rand days. We can reduce it all to just a few simple rules and presto…civilization just happens! But no. Computers can crunch the data, but then again garbage in garbage out. In my trade we say beware the hidden assumptions in a system. What do you know, and how do you know it? There are no substitutes for human judgement.

Or to put it another way: you can’t escape responsibility by off loading it onto a computer. Or a bucket of water.

Link to article Here.

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