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Memo to corporate leaders post-Covid: the disruption to businesses has only just begun | John Naughton

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Pandemics, the historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed, have a way of accelerating history. Just ask the founders of Zoom. Only two years ago, we were all thinking that it would take at least another decade before video-conferencing became an integral part of the way we work in organisations. Then along comes Covid and in three weeks we’re all happily Zooming (or unhappily in the case of Handforth parish council). And now we’re more or less acclimatised or, at any rate, resigned to the idea that remote meetings might be here to stay.

The problem with having had the fast-forward button suddenly propel us into an unexpected place, though, is that we find ourselves unmoored. We start wondering about what lies ahead as the immediate threat of the virus recedes. What will our post-pandemic future be like? In relation to work, three main possibilities are currently taking up all the airtime: continuing to work from home (WFH); a hybrid mode in which we spend some time in the office but also two or three days WFH; and a return to ye olde days commuting to the office to gather round the water cooler and pretend to be doing something useful.

In a remarkable essay published a few days ago, first as a long blog post entitled Creating the Future of Work and later as an engaging Tweetstorm, Stephen Sinofsky, a former senior Microsoft executive, argues that if these are the only options under consideration then we have gravely underestimated the industrial significance of the pandemic. Of course the nature of work will have been changed by what has happened. But what is more significant, he contends, is that the shock will also reshape the nature of the corporations in which most of us work. The problem is that most of the people who run large organisations and corporations haven’t twigged that yet.

Sinofsky knows a thing or two about this stuff. He was president of Microsoft’s Windows division for three years. Before that, he was responsible for the development of Windows, Internet Explorer, Outlook.com and Skydrive. He’s now on the board of Andreessen Horowitz, a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm. I know him mainly through his blog, Learning by Shipping, in which he writes only occasionally, but when he does, his posts are invariably insightful.

His basic argument is that the organisational impact of the pandemic will be profoundly disruptive for companies, but not in the way you’d expect. Many of them have been agreeably surprised by the way technology has enabled them not only to keep functioning, but in many cases to thrive. The penny that hasn’t yet dropped is that surviving the lockdowns by using technology indicates that their pre-pandemic ways of doing things need comprehensive re-examination. It isn’t just a matter of cutting down on business flights, say, but also of asking whether the one-hour, face-to-face “meetings” that allegedly required expensive and environmentally damaging corporate travel were useful or necessary.

Disruption, Sinovsky writes, “is not linear or predictable and, most importantly, when it is happening no one knows it. The one thing we know is entities being disrupted claim to be doing the new thing everyone is talking about – but they are doing it the old way.”

Worse still, he says, companies have an inbuilt tendency “to view disruption as a single variable – Amazon has a website, so Walmart needs one. But Amazon had warehouses, custom software, its own last-mile shipping, and on and on. Disruption is never one variable, but a wholesale revisiting of all the variables.”

That’s why the debate over remote work v hybrid v back to the office is only part of the picture. It’s interesting and it matters to employees, but it’s not where the focus should be. Many employees have been changed by the trauma of the pandemic, but corporate leaders have not – yet. They haven’t read their Clay Christensen or understood what happens to incumbents when technology creates a new, disruptive way of doing things. Managers who insist that all employees return to the office once vaccination has worked its magic may therefore be in for a surprising discovery – that they and their managerial hierarchies are the incumbents who are threatened by the pandemic’s disruption. Or, as Sinofsky puts it: “The idea that everything stays the same except for a few changes around the edges caused every incumbent to lose in the face of step-function change.”

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that getting something to work, even if it’s as initially unsatisfactory and insecure as Zoom was at the beginning, really makes all the difference in a crisis. And when you’ve got something that works, you don’t immediately pretend it never happened once the crisis has passed. That is why a blanket insistence on returning to the daily commute would be crazy – and probably futile in the end.

What I’ve been reading

Breaking the code
Coding Is Not “Fun”, It’s Technically and Ethically Complex is
a sensible Aeon piece by Walter Vannini that challenges the feel-good nonsense often spouted by education ministers on the subject of “coding”.

Unravelling our existence
Minimum Viable Self is a nice meditation by Drew Austin on his Kneeling Bus blog.

China syndrome
Apple thought it could “manage” China: big mistake. A salutary dose of realism from Jack Nicas in the New York Times.

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Iran reveals use of cryptocurrency to pay for imports • The Register

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Iran has announced it used cryptocurrency to pay for imports, raising the prospect that the nation is using digital assets to evade sanctions.

Trade minister Alireza Peyman Pak revealed the transaction with the tweet below, which translates as “This week, the first official import order was successfully placed with cryptocurrency worth ten million dollars. By the end of September, the use of cryptocurrencies and smart contracts will be widespread in foreign trade with target countries.”

It is unclear what Peman Pak referred to with his mention of widespread use of crypto for foreign trade, and the identity of the foreign countries he mentioned is also obscure.

But the intent of the announcement appears clear: Iran will use cryptocurrency to settle cross-border trades.

That’s very significant because Iran is subject to extensive sanctions aimed at preventing its ability to acquire nuclear weapons and reduce its ability to sponsor terrorism. Sanctions prevent the sale of many commodities and technologies to Iran, and financial institutions aren’t allowed to deal with their Iranian counterparts, who are mostly shunned around the world.

As explained in this advisory [PDF] issued by the US Treasury, Iran has developed numerous practices to evade sanctions, including payment offsetting schemes that let it sell oil in contravention of sanctions. Proceeds of such sales are alleged to have been funnelled to terrorist groups.

While cryptocurrency’s anonymity has been largely disproved, trades in digital assets aren’t regulated so sanctions enforcement will be more complex if Iran and its trading partners use crypto instead of fiat currencies.

Which perhaps adds more weight to the argument that cryptocurrency has few proven uses beyond speculative trading, making the ransomware industry possible, and helping authoritarian states like Iran and North Korea to acquire materiel for weapons.

Peyman Pak’s mention of “widespread” cross-border crypto deals, facilitated by automated smart contracts, therefore represents a challenge to those who monitor and enforce sanctions – and something new to worry about for the rest of us. ®



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Edwards Lifesciences is hiring at its ‘key’ Shannon and Limerick facilities

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The medtech company is hiring for a variety of roles at both its Limerick and Shannon sites, the latter of which is being transformed into a specialised manufacturing facility.

Medical devices giant Edwards Lifesciences began renovations to convert its existing Shannon facility into a specialised manufacturing centre at the end of July.

The expansion will allow the company to produce components that are an integral part of its transcatheter heart valves. The conversion is part of Edwards Lifesciences’ expansion plan that will see it hire for hundreds of new roles in the coming years.

“The expanded capability at our Shannon facility demonstrates that our operations in Ireland are a key enabler for Edwards to continue helping patients across the globe,” said Andrew Walls, general manager for the company’s manufacturing facilities in Ireland.

According to Walls, hiring is currently underway at the company’s Shannon and Limerick facilities for a variety of functions such as assembly and inspection roles, manufacturing and quality engineering, supply chain, warehouse operations and project management.

Why Ireland?

Headquartered in Irvine, California, Edwards Lifesciences established its operations in Shannon in 2018 and announced 600 new jobs for the mid-west region. This number was then doubled a year later when it revealed increased investment in Limerick.

When the Limerick plant was officially opened in October 2021, the medtech company added another 250 roles onto the previously announced 600, promising 850 new jobs by 2025.

“As the company grows and serves even more patients around the world, Edwards conducted a thorough review of its global valve manufacturing network to ensure we have the right facilities and talent to address our future needs,” Walls told SiliconRepublic.com

“We consider multiple factors when determining where we decide to manufacture – for example, a location that will allow us to produce close to where products are utilised, a location that offers advantages for our supply chain, excellent local talent pool for an engaged workforce, an interest in education and good academic infrastructure, and other characteristics that will be good for business and, ultimately, good for patients.

“Both our Shannon and Limerick sites are key enablers for Edwards Lifesciences to continue helping patients across the globe.”

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Meta’s new AI chatbot can’t stop bashing Facebook | Meta

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If you’re worried that artificial intelligence is getting too smart, talking to Meta’s AI chatbot might make you feel better.

Launched on Friday, BlenderBot is a prototype of Meta’s conversational AI, which, according to Facebook’s parent company, can converse on nearly any topic. On the demo website, members of the public are invited to chat with the tool and share feedback with developers. The results thus far, writers at Buzzfeed and Vice have pointed out, have been rather interesting.

Asked about Mark Zuckerberg, the bot told BuzzFeed’s Max Woolf that “he is a good businessman, but his business practices are not always ethical. It is funny that he has all this money and still wears the same clothes!”

The bot has also made clear that it’s not a Facebook user, telling Vice’s Janus Rose that it had deleted its account after learning about the company’s privacy scandals. “Since deleting Facebook my life has been much better,” it said.

The bot repeats material it finds on the internet, and it’s very transparent about this: you can click on its responses to learn where it picked up whatever claims it is making (though it is not always specific).

This means that along with uncomfortable truths about its parent company, BlenderBot has been spouting predictable falsehoods. In conversation with Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal, it insisted Donald Trump was still president and would continue to be “even after his second term ends in 2024”. (It added another dig at Meta, saying Facebook “has a lot of fake news on it these days”.) Users have also recorded it making antisemitic claims.

BlenderBot’s remarks were foreseeable based on the behavior of older chatbots such as Microsoft’s Tay, which Twitter users quickly taught to be a racist conspiracy theorist, forcing the company to apologize for its “wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images”. GPT-3, another AI system, has also delivered racist, misogynist and homophobic remarks. A South Korean startup’s chatbot, designed to resemble a 20-year-old college student, had to be suspended after it rattled off racial slurs and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks.

Given the cesspool that is the internet, Meta appears to have expected similar things from its own service. Before logging on, users must acknowledge that BlenderBot is “likely to make untrue or offensive statements”. As Vice notes, Meta researchers have described the AI tech behind the bot as having “a high propensity to generate toxic language and reinforce harmful stereotypes, even when provided with a relatively innocuous prompt”.

“Everyone who uses Blender Bot is required to acknowledge they understand it’s for research and entertainment purposes only, that it can make untrue or offensive statements, and that they agree to not intentionally trigger the bot to make offensive statements,” said a Meta spokesperson in a statement.

My own conversation with BlenderBot did not veer into that territory, but it did highlight another flaw in the service: its utter inanity.

The bot began by asking me what subject I liked in school. The bot is open about which “persona” it is using in the conversation; our discussion involved a persona it described as “I like to read. I went to college.” When I asked it tough questions, such as which colleges accepted AI bot students, it offered nonsensical replies (“in some ways, aren’t we all chatbots?” No) and offered further reading by saying, “Here’s the link”, without providing a link. It also kept steering the conversation back to chatbots.

It did, however, maintain its firm stance against its own creators. When I said I wasn’t a fan of Facebook’s ethics, it wholeheartedly agreed: “Me too! That is why I stopped using it and just stick with reading books instead.”



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