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Sunday, 26 June 2016

What will happen now with Europe and the United Kingdom?!

Yesterday, I described how the momentum for the catastrophic referendum in the United Kingdom  could be mounted upon the terrible ‘self promotion’ marketing for the European Union, as committed by the leadership of the EU itself: the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. During the last 20 years, the EU has sold itself as ‘the mother of all lemons’ and a cause absolutely not worth investing and trusting in or fighting for. This way, it lost nearly all the confidence it had among the European population

The leadership of the EU blatantly failed to explain and explain again the reasons for its establishment in the Fifties and Sixties and the still extremely topical ‘raisons d’etre’ of the Union: in fact now more topical than ever before, because of the economic depression that we are in since 2008.

A majority of the population of the United Kingdom – the very unwilling wedding partner in its doomed marriage-out-of-mutual-economic-benefit with the EU – has believed the bedtime stories and (half) lies of a bunch of nitwits, populist squallers and ‘toddlers-playing-with-matches’, who promised gold mountains and eternal benefit when the country would leave the EU. The latter, on the other hand, was only defended by a reckless Prime Minister and a group of bleeding heart politicians without real stature, persuasiveness and influence, inside AND outside the United Kingdom (i.e. the European Union).

And now the deal is done... The UK voted to get out of the EU with a really minute majority of 52%, thus pushing button of the ejection seat while hardly understanding what has happened anyway.

So  now that the Brexit party is over, the hangover has set in within the UK, as well as within the whole EU with brute, nuclear force...:

  • The EU leadership, who thought they could counter the Brexit plans by simply downplaying the phenomenon and throwing in a big portion of fearmongering and ridiculizing of these plans, woke up in cold sweat feeling hit by a hammer multiple times; 
  • The flabbergasted ‘Bremain’ camp is screaming for another referendum, because they can’t believe what hit them and they see now how small the majority for the Brexit vote was; 
  • One prominent member (i.e. Nigel Farage) of the Brexit camp itself started swallowing his easy lies over the economic benefits of a Brexit for the British population, telling “it wasn’t me!”;
  • Another prominent member of the Brexit camp (i.e. Boris Johnson) radically changed his tone of voice regarding the EU (i.e. from ‘the successor of Hitler’s Third Reich’ towards “we will always be Europeans”) and is in no hurry anymore to fill in the Article 50 form, enabling the Brexit;
  • British citizens that were initially very enthusiastic about leaving the EU are now counting their blessings and think whether the choice for Brexit that they made, was a smart one indeed and not based upon lies and unjust hearsay;
  • The neutral part of the population is dismayed and can’t believe the scientific, socionomic experiment that they are watching now within their country;
  • The people in Wales, North-Ireland and Scotland, who were mainly against a Brexit, are now forging plans to plummet the results of the referendum as ‘being illegal’, hoping to counter the now inevitable exit;
  • If that fails these UK-countries perhaps want to get out of the UK, in order to stay within the EU;
  • And the other 27 members of the EU, who are really sick and tired of the whole British conundrum that already wasted 3 valuable years, try to get it over with as soon as possible, in order to get the show on the road again; rather today than tomorrow;
  • They consider October, 2016, which was the designated start date of the exit-criteria negotations – mentioned by David Cameron when he stepped down as Prime Minister – to be a disgrace and an unnecessary hampering of the exit-process;
  • Germany and France – in an obvious panic reaction – are launching plans for a new EU at lightning speed, instead of really asking themselves what hit them over the last few months.

So what will happen now...?

Scenario 1

The UK finds a (legal) way to declare this referendum an ‘invalid’ one (i.e. ‘null and void’) and admits it was a historical mistake. They declare that they want to revoke the plans for a Brexit.

The EU accepts this explanation with a straight face and an iron grin and welcomes the lost sheep back in the flock, while pondering about ways to punish the UK for its stupidity for at least ten years.
The UK bows its head and accepts the humiliation in silence...

Scenario 2

The EU reminds the UK that this referendum was a one-off and that the results and consequences of it are irrevocable. It also tells the new leadership to hurry up with sending their Article 50 request.

At the same time the EU – under influence of Germany and France – speeds up the process of further integration towards the political union, now that ‘jamming station’ the United Kingdom has been lifted out of the equasion.

The leaders of the other European countries and the population all over Europe get more and more alienated by the accelerated progress of the unappointed, but very real Union leadership of France and Germany, but these two countries persist anyway in following their roadmap towards an ever closer union.

In the end the whole EU might implode, because it forgot for which it was established in the first place. This would be the doom scenario...

Scenario 3

The UK is forced to get out of the European Union indeed, but the union itself gets into a serious identity crisis, with impact for years. The Union declares that it cannot longer ignore the dramatic mood changes among the European population or the dramatic events in the United Kingdom.

After a long and extremely painful process that could take a few years, EU 2.0 is invented, in which the neoliberal roadmap of the last 20-odd years is abandoned for good.

Again there emerges more attention for the social needs and labour protection of the lower middle classes and the original and yet very topical raisons d’etre of the EU.

Instead of the EU being an enduring battle between the Calvinist North and the Catholic South or a battle between successful, wealthy citizens at one hand and the backwarded middle and lower classes at the other – people who don’t have a job and/or any form of financial and economic protection anymore – the EU decides to become a union for all citizens again: a union based upon social-democratic foundations, with an emphasis on the soft sides of the union for the total European population.

At the end of this long and painful period, the UK can decide whether it wants to re-enter the EU 2.0 or stay out of it for good.

My heart lies with scenario 3!

The European Union, which I love and admire, has drifted away too far from the reasons for its foundation and sheer existence. In my opinion, this is the reason that so many Europeans feel alienated by the EU and see it as an undemocratic and even dictatorial beast, that stands in the way of their nation states, on which they have more democratic influence

The EU has in fact turned into a monster with the monomanic emphasis upon the open markets and upon lifting the trade barriers, while dramatically neglecting the rights and interests of all the European citizens, in North, South, East and West Europe.

The EU has made life miserable for people in poor states with their dramatic emphasis on austerity and reduction of the balance gaps of the last eight years, instead of on spurring innovation and prosperity in its member states by making investments in necessary developments.

It gathered a reputation of being a spending-happy, undemocratic group of people that was only working on the interests of the ‘big money’ corporations and on the creation of laws and measures that nobody understands anymore.

That is why I have the following pledge:

The EU should return to being an establishment ‘For the European people’, ‘Of the European people’ and ‘With the European people’; not a toy for neo-liberal, well-to-do people and large corporates, who use the EU as a tool to diminish their tax payments. You must diminish the current emphasis on neo-liberal values, in order not to be slaughtered by the common, European people.

Therefore I ask the representatives of all (remaining) EU member states to really think about what has gone wrong during the last eight years!

Think about why you have alienated so many European citizens and why it is nearly impossible to explain your policy and future plans to the common citizens in the poor rural areas of the United Kingdom... and as a matter of fact of all Europe!

A mindless pursuit for an ever-closer union is not the solution at this very moment. Neither is an EU Light, in which the ‘nation states’ make all the decisions again; this would be the end of the United Europe and would turn the EU even more in ‘27 frogs in a wheel-barrow’, in which no political decision is ever made. This is the recipe for even more stress and more inequality than now already: a selfish Europe without a mutual future!

Take your time after this dramatic referendum and think about the consequences that this referendum should have for your policy and your political future!

Build the EU 2.0 of which the people are proud to be a member!!!

Saturday, 25 June 2016

The day after the Brexit before.

“Alea iacta est” – ‘The die has been cast’
Julius Caesar, when crossing the Rubicon (49 B.C.)

Even in hindsight, June 24th, 2016 will turn out to be a historical day for the European Union as well as the United Kingdom.

At least it will be remembered as the day that the unthinkable happened: the EU referendum – the ‘political-firework-toy-to-buy-time-from-his-fellow-Tories-and-remain-in-charge’ of the reckless and weak Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron – blew up in PM Cameron’s face with an enormous bang that could be heard at the far outskirts of the European Union.

With almost the closest of majorities (roughly 52% against 48%), the British population decided to vote in favour of a Brexit, thus leaving the whole European Union, the international stock exchanges and most journalists of the main stream European media, in shock & awe frantically asking themselves “where did that came from?!”.

This total bewilderdness was not restricted to the 27 remaining countries of the European Union.

Also the 48% within the United Kingdom itself, that wanted to remain in the EU, could not believe their eyes.

The final result of the Brexit:
not exactly a landslide victory, but still a definitive one
Picture courtesy of:
Click to enlarge

The final result of the Brexit:
Parts of the UK that wanted in or out the EU (blue = out)
Picture courtesy of:
Click to enlarge
The final result of the Brexit:
Division of the Brexit vs Bremain votes per region
Picture courtesy of:
Click to enlarge
Yesterday was judgment day (see this link for a series of fantastic infographics on top of the aforementioned ones):
  • for England against Wales, the Catholic part of Northern Island, almost whole Scotland and especially Gibraltar;
  • for the older generation (above 49) within England itself, against the youngsters and the career-starters;
  • for the rural areas of England, against the major cities of England and especially London (see for this especially the blue card with the division of the votes in favour and against the Brexit);
  • for the (often empoverished) working classes of England, against the better educated and well to do people that cloud the successful cities and international companies;
  • for the streetfighters Nigel Farage and Boris Johnsson, against the timid and gentleman-’ish’ PM David Cameron.

As I predicted on a number of occasions, the referendum meant indeed the immediate end for the political career of David Cameron, as he stepped down within hours after suffering this devastating loss on this ‘beast that he could not control anymore’.

Where everywhere the populists celebrated this event as the ‘first domino in a row of 28 to tumble’, the more moderate politicians licked their wounds and asked themselves where it all did go wrong.

The simplest answer to this question is probably that the EU lost sight on its main goals and ‘raisons d’etre’: maintaining stability, peace, security and justice for all people living within Europe, through mutual understanding, cooperation, friendship, free trade and open borders.

During the last thirty years the EU had slowly morphed into a toy for neoliberal politicians and free market addicts, who declared one of the goals – free trade on an open, borderless market – to be the single goal that counted for the European Union, thus dearly neglecting the other, more political goals.

From a political achievement ‘second to none in the world’, which required the most attention and the best leadership available, the EU turned into a ‘dairy cow’ (for high profile jobs, agricultural subsidies, structure funds and other mutual investment funds), as well as the perfect ‘scapegoat’ for the dissemblement of errors and misjudgments that national leaders and politicians made.

It was always ‘we did’ in case of political successes for the national leaders and ‘the EU did’ in case of the political failures that had to be sold to the national grassroots. In the latter case, the losing politicians always seemed to ignore that they had been an integral part of the decision-making process; as if they were just innocent bystanders, who had nothing to do with the whole conundrum.

And let’s be honest...

The European Council had often a nasty habit of appointing ‘grey mice’, technocrats and apparatchiks’ for the leading functions within the European Union: these seemingly interchangeable technocrats did not distract any attention from the ‘more glamourous’ national leaders, who were always in the forefront when the real decisions had to be made. Or in fact finished, as the vast majority of the work already had been done by countless civil servants, who ironed away all the initial folds between the EU countries.

This was all probably out of self-defence for the national leaders in Europe, who did not want to stand in the shadow of their European peers.

The European Commission, the President of the European Council, the High Representative for Foreign Relations and the leader of the European Parliament all became harmless, unconspicuous people who looked at things in a distant, technocrat and unpoliticized way and did not offend anyone else in the various forums, by expressing overly strong opinions or by attracting too much attention.

The biggest drawback of these very useful, but unconspicuous ‘paper soldiers’ in the European Commission was that they failed to prompt sympathy, compassion and understanding among the populations in the various European countries. And – perhaps even worse – a mutually shared feeling that they were busy in Brussels on OUR behalf, defending OUR mutual interests as European citizens, against the rest of the world.

The European Commission became the commission of the ‘curved cucumbers’, the prohibited plastic bags and the stockpiles of technocratic legislation that nobody understood. In other words: while their unconspicuousness was perhaps a recipe for better cooperation within the offices in Brussels, it proved to be a disaster for emphasizing the importance of the European Union itself.
It left the latter as a source of vast financial spillage, useless legislation and annoyance for the Europeans: the fall guy for all poor political outcomes and failed negotiations.

Take for instance the European Parliament: this parliament has been the playing ground for many ‘second grade politicians’ who were side-tracked on their own home turf, calculating job-hunters and money-collectors and (more recently) European Union-haters, who wanted to make their point while screaming it out to their fellow MEP’s.

Although there are many, many compassionate and very good politicians from all European countries in the European Parliament, everybody unfortunately remembers the poor ones. The European Parliament almost never made a lasting impression on the European citizens, even though the parliament took many important decisions. This fact can be simply checked by looking at the number of people in all European countries, who casted their vote in the last European elections.

For the European Commission, the situation is even worse. The European Commission is undemocratic to the eyes of many and is blamed for almost everything that is wrong about Europe. Hardly anybody can name more than one or two commissioners and tell what their function is. This turns these commissioners in nameless, faceless threateners of the European democracy, as represented by the nation states.

But please think about this: who put these people in charge there? Was it all a French-German conspiracy? Was it maybe Saddam Hussein? Were it creepy representatives of one of the American secret services? Were it perhaps the Borg from the Star Trek series?!

Of were it our own national leaders...?!

Président François Hollande, Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also PM David Cameron, PM Mark Rutte (Netherlands), PM Matteo Renzi (Italy), PM Marian Rajoy (Spain), PM Alex Tsipras (Greece), President Andrzej Duda (Poland) and 19 other presidents and prime ministers of European countries.

That is exactly the point: these Euro-commissioners have all been put in charge by our own leaders, for exactly their unconspicuousness and their substitutability and their ability to keep a relatively low political profile.  

Europe can’t be sold to its citizens anymore, because our own national leaders made it as unattractive as possible over the last thirty years. And now it is falling apart on us, with the United Kingdom as the first domino to tumble...

Tomorrow: what can be the remedy for the current political conundrum with respect to the UK and the remaining members of the EU?

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Will applied robotics turn middle and lower class workers into ‘the firemen on electric trains’ of the 21st Century and eventually lead to a new era of joblessness?

we are programmed just to do
anything you want us to
we are the robots

On steamtrains, firemen did traditionally one of the most important jobs: they had to keep the fire under the steam boilers burning fiercely at all time, in order to generate enough steam for the steam train to reach its destination. It was tough and dirty work, only suitable for the strongest and toughest of men. 

However, this came all to an end with the invention of the (diesel-)electric train, for which no firemen were needed anymore to run the steam engine and operate the train.

Or didn’t it?!

As the legend tells, there have been firemen on electric and diesel trains in the Anglo-Saxon world (i.e. the United Kingdom and the United States) until well in the last quarter of the 20th Century... 

Not because these firemen held indispensable positions on these types of trains and were really necessary to operate the engine or the valves and switches on these trains. No, reputedly they kept their position, because the then-powerful labour unions demanded from the railroad companies that their jobs would be maintained until the last fireman would retire. A job out of pity; not out of necessity.

I had to think about these ‘firemen on electric trains’ when I visited a conference about applied robotics, organized by the Dutch accountancy firm KPMG and hosted by Joris Juttmann of KPMG and René de Monchy of BNR News radio. Joris Juttmann is the Director Finance Management Advisory of KPMG and involved in Finance Robotics. René is a very intelligent, curious and learned journalist with a big interest in the future of labour, with whom I brainstormed on a few occasions about the Dutch banking industry. 

The conference existed of two keynote speeches and two break-out sessions with suppliers of robotics software, like IBM’s Watson, IPSoft’s Amelia and a few suppliers of RPA (i.e. robotic process automation) tools. These suppliers all covered different areas of the development ladder of applied robotics, with an automated (i.e. robotized) invoice processing tool as relatively simple tool and IBM’s Watson as the epitome of robotic tools today. At the end there was a panel discussion between the suppliers of these tools and guests of the conference. 

Picture of the Applied Robotics conference hosted by KPMG on June 15th, 2016
Most right: René de Monchy, directly next to him: Joris Juttmann of KPMG
Picture by: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
The conference was organized to: 
  • a. show what is already possible with the current generation of applied robotics in today’s office and boardroom environments and
  • b. shed a light on the coming ten years, in which the development of applied robotics will undoubtedly cause a dramatic paradigm shift for many, many low AND high educated office and blue collar workers and will lead to really new and sophisticated, strategic decision-making tools for the executive boards of tomorrow’s companies.
To be fair: I am definitely from the robot, android and cyborg generation that emerged in the 2nd half of the 20th Century. Therefore I can draw a Cylon (from Battlestar Galactica), Star Wars’ R2D2 and C3PO or Twiki from the Buck Rogers’ series with my eyes closed. Not even to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger as the legendary Terminator.

This meant that I had to switch off my fantasy and I had to understand that applied robotics has less to do with autonomous and hostile (or friendly) steel humanoids, than with robotized and computerized processes that can run nearly unattended 24 x 7 and execute a shedload of administrative work at times when normal workers sleep. Robots and robotized tools that can understand and communicate with human beings in ‘natural language’ too: currently mostly in English, but with many more languages underway.

While the demonstration of programmable toy robots (see the aforementioned picture) in the beginning of the conference was a little bit too ‘toy-ish’ and childish for my personal taste, the program as a whole was a very good and interesting listen.

As I had to make a choice, which suppliers and products I would visit during those two break-out sessions, I chose for IPSoft’s Amelia (i.e. a robotized, context-sensitive call centre clerk) and IBM’s Watson.

Picture of  Amelia, the robotized call centre clerk by IPSoft
Picture courtesy of: IPSoft
Click to enlarge
Amelia, a robotized and animated helpdesk/callcenter clerk looked in the demonstrated version perhaps too much like an archetypical, somewhat restrained blond girl from Sweden, but her capabilities seemed quite impressive.

"She" was not only capable of speaking and understanding natural language in voice and writing (i.e. not just collecting keyword-driven snippets of information, but literally understanding whole phrases and sentences), but her sophisticated software enabled her to fully understand the contents, context and emotional tone-of-voice of the caller’s message and adjust her own tone of voice and cartoonized expression to the mood and words of the caller.

Amelia demonstrated – as a call centre (sales) clerk for a health insurance company – that she could understand inquiries in natural language (both in speech and written) about new/additional insurance products and administer an exact answer about how much these would cost for the customer. She also changed her tone of voice and looks when a customer called with a serious illness or complaint.

During this whole demonstration IPSoft showed the trees of changing, context-driven and topical answers, as well as her full range of robotized emotions and her language understanding and answering capabilities with respect to the subject, from which Amelia could pick her pronounced or textual answers and cartoonized and verbally expressed emotions. 

IPSoft also showed that Amelia could connect to all required systems in the backoffice to offer product calculations and other answers to customer’s inquiries. In a certain way, this robotized call centre clerk was akin to the early expert systems, that were already under development in the Nineties, but it was all way more sophisticated, intelligent and topical than in those years.

I still have some serious doubts whether today’s pampered, well-informed and assertive customers want to be helped by a robotized and cartoonized ‘girl’ with a peculiar voice, that tries to understand the customer. 

Yet, I had to admit that a patient, 24 x 7 available customer call centre clerk, always offering immediate and on-the-spot service, sounds like a good deal for online shoppers. Especially when her language, emotional and context-sensitive capabilities are indeed as good as promised during the demo. 

Besides that, the fact that tough and complicated questions or uncomfortable conversations with angry customers will immediately lead to human intervention by real employees, might be a critical success factor for Amelia.

Nevertheless, when Amelia represented the Junior League of Baseball for robotized tools, IBM’s Watson was definitely representing the World Series in this category.

Picture of  IBM's Watson, the robotized information cruncher 
and expert system during its winning game of Jeopardy
Picture courtesy of: IBM
Click to enlarge
According to IBM, this tool – that won a game of Jeopardy against the best and most seasoned human players ever, at the expense of a ‘token’ $10 billion in initial investments – is reputedly able to ‘crunch’ 300,000 documents per second(!) in human language. 

Its artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities enable Watson to improve itself dramatically in proportion as it gets more (useful) information from various different sources. The possibilities to 

  • a. feed Watson with almost unlimited amounts of structured, as well as unstructured information (i.e. pictures, videos, human speech fragments and other soft information) and
  • b. administer a weight to the quality of the entered information in accordance with its scientific or business standards, 
makes Watson probably the boardroom tool of the future.

One of the most promising examples of Watson being able to wrangle unstructured data, is the fact that it is used by medical doctors and institutions to find cancer forms and assess their gravity on x-ray pictures and CT scans.

Of course it is quite hard for an unexperienced listener to distinguish between sheer ‘marketing babble’ and genuine, truthful information about Watson's real achievements. Yet – with IBM’s reputation and future at stake – I do believe that Watson is a future factor to reckon with, even though it is yet extremely expensive to purchase, load and operate. Therefore the tool has still a very high threshold for ‘common’ companies, but that threshold will probably diminish when prices drop and loading of information will become easier and quicker.

Amelia and especially Watson might sound like science fiction to the ears of many people, but the developments in applied robotization currently go at lightning speed...

Nowadays tools are emerging that can check the whole administration of large companies, instead of doing ad random checks on a limited set of corporate information like human auditors do. This means that these tools are able to check every transaction, general ledger entry and manual correction, being made by every department of the company during the business year. 

On top of that these tools are also able to write the mandatory auditors’ statements about the quality and reliability of the business administration of the company, which are part of quarterly and annual reports and other mandatory information to shareholders.

There are also tools that can book, distribute and process all invoices, purchase orders and sales orders without any human intervention at all. Or robotized distribution systems that can pick millions of sales orders in huge warehouses around the clock and make them shippable for the distribution trucks, without one single human being around and within minutes after the order came in from the customer.

Will this all go at the expense of numerous lower AND middle class jobs?! You bet!

While I was already worried about the relatively simple, lower class jobs in distribution centres, warehouses and supermarkets, I was actually quite surprised to learn last Wednesday that even complex and intelligence-requiring, higher middle-class jobs like auditor, accountant, notary, legal counsellor and fiscal specialist are now on the line, due to these financial and business robots.

And even though IPSoft’s Amelia still looks quite grotesk and clumsy and has a clearly non-human, robotized voice that probably few people will appreciate, I definitely see the potential in this tool for large online shops and worldwide operating companies. This all happens at the expense of large and independent, humanly operated, around-the-clock call centres positioned all over the globe.

As that was the message of this conference: almost ALL repetitive, routinely labour and activities can already be executed by robotized processes today and the development still goes on and on. 

These unstoppable developments might turn the people, who are currently working in such jobs, into the ‘firemen-on-electric-trains of the 21st Century’: tolerated for what they were and could do in the past, but not really useful anymore in the light of the latest developments.

In my humble opinion, it is without a question mark that the robotization of the workplace will lead to massive loss of routinely and repetitive labour, as maybe tens of thousands of jobs are on the line in The Netherlands alone and millions of jobs globally. 

Think about millions and millions of accountants, auditors, lawyers, call centre clerks, distribution centre and supermarket employees who can be dismissed and replaced by machines, which can do their jobs 24x7x52 each year. Without hesitation and without ever getting tired or bored.

It is nearly impossible that all these dismissed people will find a different job very soon. 

Many of them might become unemployed for quite a long time. Therefore many (or all) humans have to focus on what makes them special and different from these (administrative) robots and computerized processes. They have to develop their creativity, their improvisational capabilities and their unaddressed talents in order to become indispensable again in the 21st Century.

This is a grim outlook, but it can also be an opportunity to change one’s life for the better. For the simple reason that routinely and repetitive labour is seldomly the most interesting job for creative and intelligent people, looking for challenges.