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Thanks, COVID: Digital automation progress in workforce accelerated

(TECH NEWS) We know machines and automation are the future of the workforce – but did you know that COVID-19 is speeding up the transition?

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Man on tablet with automation tasks

If you haven’t been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard a thing or two about the rise of AI and machines in the workforce. You’ve probably also heard phrases like “automation” and “digitization” to describe a future economy sans humans that is already well underway, especially in fields like data entry, accounting, and administrative support. If you feel nervous about whether or not you’ll have a job in this future workforce, you’re certainly not alone.

I like to focus on the more hopeful words that are floating around, such “job retraining” or “reskilling”, that imply everyday humans (like me) will still have a place in the workforce if we pivot our careers aptly. This puts emphasis on that special human-y pizazz that distinguish us from our machine competitors.

But did you know that analysts predict COVID-19 will accelerate this, giving way to a more automized work force sooner than we had anticipated?

According to The Future of Jobs Report 2020 – a report conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) – the number of jobs being lost right now due to the pandemic is significantly more than the number of jobs being created for a future economy (think: jobs in green energy, jobs in tech, etc.). Employers are not doing enough to account for this disparity.

Research suggests that by 2025, automation and a new division of labor between people and machines will impact 85 million jobs across 15 areas and 26 economies worldwide – and 2025 isn’t some distant future, it’s literally right around the corner.

It’s no surprise that these changes will exacerbate inequalities in the workforce, as automation disproportionally affects low-skilled workers, young people, and women.

Managing Director of the WEF Saadia Zahidi had this to say: “…accelerating automation and the fallout from the COVID-19 recession has deepened existing inequalities across labor markets and reversed employment improvements gained after the global financial crisis.”

Of all the negative fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a widened wealth gap is one that will persist even after the vaccine is distributed. The marginalized and disenfranchised do not always have the privilege of flexibility when it comes to career pivoting and reeducating, which I firmly believe will come back to bite employers in the bum later on.

Even if you have kept your job during this time, research shows that about 50% of you will need to reskill ASAP. So if you’re not a wealthy, educated business owner who is typically unaffected by mass struggle, chances are you’re going to have to take immediate actions to insure that come 2025 (or sooner!) you still have a way of providing for yourself and your family.

My advice? If you’re unemployed (or tied to your employer by a thread), now is the time to take matters into your own hands and reskill. Take a class on HubSpot. Complete a UX course. Develop the parts of yourself that make you human (Hint: Try spending your free time engaging with others and not scrolling on Instagram or Twitter).

Essentially, we have to learn to future-proof our jobs because no one else is going to do it for us. The only silver lining to this the period of uncertainty is the free time – so take advantage of it and become your machine competitor’s worst nightmare.

Anaïs DerSimonian is a writer, filmmaker, and educator interested in media, culture and the arts. She is Clark University Alumni with a degree in Culture Studies and Screen Studies. She has produced various documentary and narrative projects, including a profile on an NGO in Yerevan, Armenia that provides micro-loans to cottage industries and entrepreneurs based in rural regions to help create jobs, self-sufficiency, and to stimulate the post-Soviet economy. She is currently based in Boston. Besides filmmaking, Anaïs enjoys reading good fiction and watching sketch and stand-up comedy.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Ann Cummings

    November 5, 2020 at 8:44 am

    As more time went on, I began realizing just how quickly this automation was accelerating all around us. The places we went into all had plenty of self-checkout stations, little stations for self-help around a store if you couldn’t find something or needed a price, food stations, etc. And the longer this virus has gone on, the more automation has taken over so many jobs. And it definitely will continue to march on. All done in the name of safety and precautions due to the virus, but look at the difference 8-9 months has already made…..

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Airbnb has blocked 50K+ bookings for being too big during COVID-19

(NEWS) Airbnb has cancelled a huge number of reservations as a security precaution during COVID-19 in the past year or so.

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In the last year or so, Airbnb has purposefully prevented at least 50,000 people from making irresponsible reservations on their properties, in many cases blocking those people from the platform itself. This prevention, at least in theory, helped cut down on the number of COVID parties during the pandemic.

According to The Verge, Airbnb’s head of trust and safety communication, Ben Breit, acknowledged blocked reservations in several cities across the United States, including Dallas, San Diego, and New Orleans. Breit confirmed that this response was an attempt to prevent large gatherings and parties during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during which many areas banned group activities involving more than a few people.

While some requests for reservations were simply denied or “redirected”, many users were blocked from using Airbnb entirely. Airbnb noted that the number of blocked requests outpaced the number of people who were blocked, signifying that some accounts attempted to make more than one reservation before being removed from the platform.
Airbnb reportedly stated that “Instituting a global ban on parties and events is in the best interest of public health” prior to enacting a total ban on rentals at the beginning of 2020, a decision that gave way to the blocks and redirections in the last 12 months.

The evaluation system used to flag problematic reservations is relatively simple, according to Breit: “If you are under the age of 25 and you don’t have a history of positive reviews, we will not allow you to book an entire home listing local to where you live.”

But Airbnb didn’t entirely remove multiple-body listings or large rentals. The Verge reports that flagged users with the aforementioned criteria were still able to book both small rentals in local locations and larger rentals in reasonably distant locations.

Regardless of the optics here, Airbnb’s policy efficacy can’t be ignored. Multiple cities reported comparatively “quiet” holiday seasons–something that may contribute to Airbnb’s decision to extend their policy through the end of this summer.

The hosting company is also offering increased security measures, such as noise detection and a 24-hour hotline, at a discounted rate to property owners.

As both the vaccine gap and the proliferation of the Delta variant of COVID-19 continue to contribute to outbreaks, one can reasonably expect Airbnb to hold to this policy.

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TL;DV summarizes video meetings so folks can catch up in quickly *with* context

(TECHNOLOGY) TL;DV makes catching up on video team meetings slightly more tolerable and easily digestable.

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2021 was the year of virtual meetings, and while there are some perks associated with remote collaboration (I’m looking at you, pair of work pants that I didn’t have to wear once this year), these meetings often feel exponentially more arduous than their dressed-up counterparts. TL;DV, a consolidation app for Google Meet, looks to give back a bit of your time.

TL;DV (an acronym for “Too Long; Didn’t View”) is a Google Chrome recording extension that helps users specify important sections of meetings for anyone who needs to view them asynchronously. Users can tag specific segments in Google Meet sessions, transcribe audio, and leave notes above tagged sections for timestamp purposes, and the subsequent file can be shared via a host of both Google and third-party apps.

While the extension is only available for Google Meet at the time of writing, the TL;DV team has included a link to a survey for Zoom and MS Teams users on their site, thus implying that the team is looking into expanding into those platforms in the future.

The mission behind TL;DV is, according to the website, to empower users to “control how we spend our precious time” in the interest of combatting FOMO and meeting fatigue. By dramatically shortening the amount of time one must spend perusing a meeting recording, they seem well on their way to doing so.

Of course, the issue of human oversight remains. It seems likely that meeting facilitators will drop the ball here and there while tagging sections of the recording, and employees who miss crucial information in a recorded session are sure to be frustrated in the process–just not as frustrated as they might be if they attended the entire meeting live.

The current (free) version of TL;DV is in Beta, so users will have a three-hour cap on their videos. The development team promises a professional version by the end of 2021, with the added bonus of leaving prior recordings available for free for anyone who used the Beta. This is certainly an extension to keep an eye on–whether or not you’re remaining remote in 2022, virtual conferencing is no doubt here to stay.

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Hiding from facial recognition is a booming business

(TECH NEWS) ‘Cloaking’ is the new way to hide your face. Companies are making big money designing cloaking apps that thwart your features by adding a layer of make up, clothing, blurring, and even transforming you into your favorite celebrity.

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Facial recognition companies and those who seek to thwart them are currently locked in a grand game of cat and mouse. Though it’s been relentlessly pursued by police, politicians, and technocrats alike, the increasing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, workplaces, and housing complexes remains a widely unpopular phenomenon.

So it’s no surprise that there is big money to be made in the field of “cloaking,” or dodging facial recognition tech – particularly during COVID times while facial coverings are, literally, in fashion.

Take Fawkes, a cloaking app designed by researchers at the University of Chicago. It is named for Guy Fawkes, the 17th century English revolutionary whose likeness was popularized as a symbol of anonymity, and solidarity in V For Vendetta.

Fawkes works by subtly overlaying a celebrity’s facial information over your selfies at the pixel level. To your friends, the changes will go completely unnoticed, but to an artificial intelligence trying to identify your face, you’d theoretically look just like Beyonce.

Fawkes isn’t available to the general public yet, but if you’re looking for strategies to fly under the radar of facial recognition, don’t fret; it is just one example of the ways in which cloaking has entered the mainstream.

Other forms of cloaking have emerged in the forms of Tik Tok makeup trends, clothes that confuse recognition algorithms, tools that automatically blur identifying features on the face, and much more. Since effective facial recognition relies on having as much information about human faces as possible, cloaking enthusiasts like Ben Zhao, Professor of computer science at the University of Chicago and co-developer of Fawkes, hope to make facial recognition less effective against the rest of the population too. In an interview with The New York Times, Zhao asserts, “our [team’s] goal is to make Clearview [AI] go away.”

For the uninitiated, Clearview AI is a start-up that recently became infamous for scraping billions of public photos from the internet and privately using them to build the database for a law enforcement facial recognition tool.

The CEO of Clearview, Hoan Ton-That, claimed that the tool would only be improved by these workarounds and that in long run, cloaking is futile. If that sounds like supervillain talk, you might see why he’s earned himself a reputation similar to the likes of Martin Shkreli or Ajit Pai with his company’s uniquely aggressive approach to data harvesting.

It all feels like the beginning of a cyberpunk western: a story of man vs. machine. The deck is stacked, the rules are undecided, and the world is watching. But so far, you can rest assured that no algorithm has completely outsmarted our own eyeballs… yet.

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