Memories of the 2017 NASFiC

Perhaps you’d like to see a presentation my son Tyrell Gephardt and I prepared, about our experiences at this year’s North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC), held anytime the Worldcon is not in North America (which it is not this year; it’s in Helsinki).

We hope you enjoy(ed) it–we certainly enjoyed our time there. We’ve also shared this presentation with KACSFFS, our local Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, both at the July meeting last Saturday and on the KaCSFFS Blog (scroll down).

Ty and I also spent a couple of days afterward, wandering around in fascinating Old San Juan. It’s possible some of the thoughts and photos from those peregrinations may end up in future blog posts here!

IMAGES: At least half of those in the NASFiC presentation, are by Jan S. Gephardt. Most of the other photos in the presentation are by Tyrell E. Gephardt; the remaining photos (credited at the end of the NASFiC presentation), and also the Featured Image at the top of the post, are from the official website of the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, where the NASFiC was held. Many thanks!

To automate, or not to automate? Working with kids

A Glimpse of the Future?

In recent weeks my mid-week posts have focused on the contemporary trend among all kinds of industries to increasingly use robotics or other types of automation, rather than hiring extra workers.

It’s a phenomenon that impacts all kinds of workers–in ALL socio-economic brackets, except maybe for that seemingly-impervious top 1%–and across widely-varied industries. Today, in the last of this series, I intend to address the topic that originally inspired me to look into it in the first place.

I am a retired teacher. Indeed, from its inception in 2009 through mid-2013, the title of this blog was Artdog Educator, and it focused pretty exclusively on education topics. Although both I and the blog have shifted our focus since then, I have been and always will be professionally interested in how people learn.

Thus, I was dumbfounded to read in Education Week recently that there actually are people in New York who think it’s a good idea to save money by replacing substitute teachers with e-learning. What is e-learning? In case you couldn’t figure it out, it’s training conducted via the Internet.

Now . . . educators have anything but a stellar history in the use of digital media for teaching. For a variety of understandable but lamentable reasons, it has taken heroic efforts to get educators anywhere close to up-to-speed in this area. I examined that dynamic in some detail, in a 2011 series that kicked off with the post Teaching Like it’s 1980.

Slowly and painfully, however, educators at all levels have finally–somewhat–in spite of all countervailing forces–embraced digital media. Given that, and the global movement to automate all possible jobs (whether it’s a good idea or not), some brilliant genius, sooner or later, was going to come up with this.

As with the periodic call to “run education like a business,” I can guarantee you that no one who has ever actually BEEN a substitute teacher came up with this plan. I, on the other hand, have racked up ten years’ cumulative, hard-won substitute-teaching experience. 

A little boy and his teacher observe as a Nao robot (by Aldebaran Robotics) writes an equation.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. In my research for this series I’ve run onto the idea that robots or automation could take over several different aspects of childcare or education, from babysitting through early learning, distance learning, and substitute teaching.

It’s intuitive, right? I mean, kids seem inextricably attached to their digital devices, and, after all, parents have been parking their kids in front of the “electronic babysitter” (AKA television/videos) for years.

Great idea! The Trix Cereal Rabbit as your babysitter. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure. And if you think “Nao” or the TV could actually be a good babysitter in the total absence of parents or other supervising adults, just try it. See how quickly you come up on child endangerment charges!

A robot, at the current level of development, couldn’t control the situation. The kid knows that thing isn’t a real person, and has no authority. S/he would play with it for a while, get bored, and go wandering off unsupervised to face the myriad dangers of whatever the world threw at him/her.

Digital media present the same problem in the substitute-teaching scenario. Used in conjunction with a good lesson plan and alert (adult, human, in-charge) substitute teacher, they’ve gotten many a class through many a lesson with some actual learning and student engagement taking place.

E-learning can’t replace an engaging, knowledgeable human teacher who’s firmly in charge of things.

Absent the alert, adult, human, in-charge substitute teacher, you’ve got guaranteed chaos. No matter what the grade penalties, 99% of any class will do anything BUT the busywork on the computer. Any class I ever stepped into as a substitute was extremely reluctant to conduct “business as usual.” They generally required a very firm hand and a lot of creative engagement to successfully establish a genuine learning environment. 

The intrinsic fascination with learning via the Internet has long since faded for digital natives; to them, it’s old hat. They need to believe it’s worth their time–AND more interesting than all the other things they could be doing–for any plan to “replace substitute teachers with e-learning” to actually work.

Digital natives are doing their own thing, when they’re totally wrapped up in their digital media. Doesn’t mean they’ll do lessons unsupervised.

Substitute teaching, done well, is hard work (kinda like nursing! Or developing and writing news stories! Or . . . you get the idea, I hope). It requires a dedicated professional who knows the discipline s/he is to teach, if it’s not to be a wasted “babysitting day”–and we haven’t been able to afford those, for a long time.

If the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York (or any other bright-eyed bean-counters in a similar position) think otherwise, they should try it for themselves. I dare them.

Meanwhile, if they can’t get enough qualified substitute teachers, maybe they should try offering them “combat pay.”

IMAGES: Thanks yet again to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic. The e-learning photo is courtesy of UNITAR/UN ESCAP E-Learning. Many thanks to International Business Times, for the photo of the NAO robot in a south Australian classroom (note adult human teacher also in the picture), and to Frenzy Advertisement for the photo of the kids watching a Trix commercial on TV. Many thanks to TheSHRINKRap’s post “Engaging teachers means engaged students,” for the photo of the teacher with an engaged group of students, and to CathNews USA for the photo of the student with an iPad.

To automate, or not to automate? Writers, attorneys, and financial advisors on the line

A Glimpse of the Future?

My recent mid-week posts have focused on the phenomenon of automation in the contemporary workplace–that is, “machines taking over our jobs,” and looking at trends for the future.

Last week, I tackled robotics and automation in the health care industry. Today I’m focused on the symbolic logic crowd, that is, people who mostly traffic in numbers and letters. Thus, I’m looking at writers, attorneys, and financial advisors.

They’re all white-collar jobs, and aspects of each require judgement, creativity, and empathy–but other aspects “turn out to be routine and process-based.” That’s just the kind of thing computers do best.

But writing? Law? Higher-level financial analysis? Well, yeah. With caveats.

Writing 

This one kinda hurts, but certain types of data-heavy information can pretty readily be transformed into prose using a process Klint Finley of Wired describes as “a more complex version of Mad Libs meets mail merge.” Two companies, Automated Insights and Narrative Science are the main contenders in the field at the moment.

The primary uses for this software so far have been in the areas of financial news, sportswriting, and industrial communications. Organizations such as the Associated Press and Fox News have discovered it is (big surprise, here) “considerably less expensive for us to go this route than for us to try to have our own beat reporters at each one of these games,” (That’s Michael Calderon, Big Ten’s director of new media, speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek).

But of course it’s expanding. As a science fiction novelist, I’m under no illusions. Some genres are more friendly toward “formulaic” plots than others (I’ll leave you to judge which ones those might be), but I’m sure the day is coming soon when you’ll be able to plug in certain character and plot elements and the software will crank out a complete “novel” or “short story.”

On the other hand, we’re still very far from a computer that can go into a war zone and make sense of the chaos, write a meaningful human-interest article, or build an exposé, piece by exacting piece. And so far we’re still unable to distill that special “something” that transforms a novel into a mega-bestseller that strikes a chord in millions (if we could, they all would be). We still need human hearts and minds (and a lot of luck!) for that.

Legal Practice

Turns out there’s a lot of mundane drudgery in the practice of law, and untold numbers of documents to review. Firms used to have no choice but to hire a fleet of lawyers and paralegals to review them, but now there’s software to cover that angle. As attorney Bill Herr pointed out to the New York Times, “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

As in the case of doctors, however, you needn’t look for robots to start donning barristers’ wigs or delivering closing arguments in court for a while to come, though I fear the pioneering efforts on that front may come in the form of legal-aid robots for the defense of low-income criminal defendants. Would that be found to be constitutional? (And what would the originalists think of it?)

But behind the scenes, computers are already hard at work. For now, they’re probably cutting down the entry level jobs for lawyers, but their best potential is to save the efforts of the humans for the things that matter most.

Financial Industry Professionals 

Stock trading has forever been transformed by computer-based algorithmic trading, in which high volumes of stocks are traded “using automated pre-programmed trading instructions accounting for variables such as time, price, and volume.” 

However, as you’ve probably extrapolated from the section above that discussed financial writing and business communications, automation has gone much farther since the first automated trading systems went online in the 1970s and ’80s. With all the things they can plug into algorithms these days, have humans become superfluous?

Well, maybe not yet.

Assuming one is fortunate enough to need guidance for investment strategies, we’re still short of a technological singularity, which would place a computer in possession of all the critical thinking, synthesis, and empathy needed to serve human laypersons who have other things to do with their time besides manage their stock portfolios.

Till then, I’d still advise checking with a well-trained, credentialed human.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future vision” graphic, to ResearchPedia.Info, for the “difference between stock market and stock exchange” photo montage, and to Sports Management Degrees for the graphic of the football with data behind it. I am grateful to the Criminal Lawyers and Attorneys organization for the courtroom photo, and to The Balance for the photo of the financial advisor with her clients.

Return on investment?

The Artdog Quote of the Week:

Two contrasting thoughts on investing in our future, while it’s still April:

Might note that 2014 went on to be the third-hottest year on record (so far), after The Donald tweeted this pearl of perspicacity.

IMAGES: Many thanks to The Triple Pundit via Pinterest, for Dr. Shiva‘s economic reality-check, and to the iamcorrect blog for the tweet from the regrettable orange person who currently resides in the White House. I also am grateful to Climate Central for their telling graphic.

Into the storm

The Artdog Images of Interest

Three major signals of climate change’s onset are increased rates and ferocity of fires, deepening drought, and increasingly violent storms. Today’s image focuses on storms.

First, a little “storm porn,” because dramatic, high-contrast clouds plus lightning and panoramic skies make for jaw-dropping storm photos. Here’s a mini-portfolio from American storm-chaser Mike Mezeul II:

Thunderstorm outside Cheyenne, WY by Mike Mezeul II
Thunderstorm over Big Spring TX – Mike Mezeul II
Thunderstorm with internal lightning over Graham, TX, by Mike Mazeul II

I could look at these all day, but a little reminder may be in order that gorgeous clouds can contain devastating downpours, tornadoes, and/or hurricanes that can do millions of dollars’ worth of damages in just a short time. Havoc such as that shown in these photos:

This is what we denizens of Tornado Alley call “a real toad-strangler.” This storm hit the San Fernando Valley in February 2017.
The website didn’t give a location or date for this photo, but I hope that truck had water wings!
Stormy surf at Porthcawl Harbor, South Wales, in 2014. (photo: PA/Mirror)
A man in Northern Ireland excavates his sheep from a snowdrift in 2014.
Dramatic flooding resulted in 2015 from Tropical Storm Etau in Japan.
2016 flooding and mudslides in Victory, WI made for some arduous cleanup afterwards.

As the EPA is still so far able to say on its website, “Extreme weather is typically rare. But climate change is increasing the odds of more extreme weather events taking place.” 

One thing’s clear: we’d better batten down the hatches–and make sure we have an emergency plan. Unfortunately, we never know when we’ll be caught up in the next disaster.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Mike Mezeul II and The Daily Mail for the gorgeous “storm porn” series at the top. I also am grateful to Climate 101 with Jason, for the San Fernando Valley storm photo by David McNew/Getty Images, to Insurance Advocate for the hurricane-swamping-the-road photo with the pickup truck, to the Mirror for the stormy surf South Welsh photo from 2014, and to the BBC for the photo of the Northern Irishman excavating his sheep from a snowdrift the same year. Many thanks to Young Independent for the Tropical Storm Etau image, and to WXOW Channel 19 of LaCrosse, WI for the mudslide photo.

To automate, or not to automate? Robo-health-care?

A Glimpse of the Future?

Several recent mid-week posts have addressed aspects of the contemporary and projected issue of automation in the workplace–especially in the area of “machines taking over our jobs.”

A growing number of people think that artificially intelligent robots might take over jobs in white-collar professions, moving far beyond the traditional roles of “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull,” as robotics expert Ryan Calo calls them. Today I want to talk about health care.

Exactly what do people mean, when they talk about robots “taking over” the jobs of doctors, nurses, or other health care workers? I’m not sure all mean the same things. One thing they almost certainly do not mean is Emergency Medical Holgram Mark I (as portrayed by actor Robert Picardo on TV’s Star Trek: Voyager from 1995-2001).

Don’t expect to meet any Emergency Medical Holograms in your neighborhood hospital anytime soon!

But it’s a question worth asking, all the same. Richard and Daniel Susskind noted in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that “There are more monthly visits to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors in the United States.”

Okay. But is that a salient observation? A quick Internet check to research a question for free takes a whole lot less time, hassle and expense than a trip to see your doctor. I’m not sure this compares apples to apples, guys.

Also, I don’t know any health care professionals who greet with joy (or any expectation of an accurate analysis) the news that their patient looked up his problem on WebMD and has already diagnosed it, “so doctor, you just have to prescribe this kind of pill for me . . .”

Yeah, right. WebMD is a research resource, not a doctor, any more than FindLaw.Com is a lawyer.

Do medical websites such as WebMD actually erode trust between doctors and patients? A 2015 post on LiveClinic Healthcare Blog makes a point that in some cases they might.

However, the Susskinds’ research involved a comprehensive survey of the literature about changes in industry, automation technology, and society, as well as more than 100 interviews with experts in cutting-edge development from a variety of disciplines, so their analysis shouldn’t be discounted or ignored.

When they looked at all the various things doctors and other professionals do, they found that “when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy.” In other words, although we don’t have terribly creative or empathic robots currently, there are elements to a professional’s job which don’t require those traits. It’s not hard to make the leap to the idea of the doctor delegating those things to a machine.

It’s true that surgical robots can do many procedures a human surgeon simply could not. Very few of them currently involve autonomous robotics–a doctor still has his/her hands on the controls. But that could change as these machines grow more sophisticated. FW: Thinking has a really informative video on this topic that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did (relax: no blood) :

There also are other uses for robots that may not exactly eliminate the human doctor’s role so much as extend it. Some retail pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, have been piloting in-store health kiosks. Robert Thompson of Rite Aid says his stores’ interface “pairs licensed healthcare providers with state-of-the-art technology to deliver a truly unique solution to consumers looking for convenient and quality healthcare.” 


Telemedicine has enjoyed a worldwide advent, out of necessity.  “Doctors are examining patients continents away with interactive robots and hi-tech visuals. These robots are fully mobile, with computer screens for heads and real-time video cameras for eyes and ears. Doctors operate them by using a joystick and wireless technology.”

The Doctor will see you now . . . via telemedicine. There’s still a human doctor in this equation, so it’s not exactly a replacement. You might note there’s also a real live human healthcare practitioner at the patient’s bedside as well. Robots have seen particularly robust adoption in Japanese hospitals.

Extending the role of doctors may become an absolute necessity in the near future. We’ve heard about a looming worldwide shortage of doctors for years, and in April 2016 the Association of American Medical Colleges pointed to strong indicators of coming shortages in the U.S., in several broad categories. We may end up coping with this in a variety of ways, including more care given by physicians’ assistants or nurse practitioners–or the use of telemedicine or other automated functions.

There’s a shortage of nurses, too, which is leading some observers to predict automation will move into that job category, too. In 2015 a headline on the Horizon Healthcare Staffing website rather chillingly proclaimed, “Robots will replace nurses sooner rather than later,” which I think would worry me if I worked for Horizon Healthcare Staffing. As with doctors, however, when you look at the details I think replace may be a stretch, at least in the near term. More like “assist” or “augment.”

Introducing Actroid-F, a robotic nurse created by Kokoro Co. Ltd. This robot is designed to provide bedside empathy to patients, but I fear she would seriously weird me out–she’s most definitely from Uncanny Valley territory, in my view! The Japanese, however, reportedly have a more comfortable cultural relationship with robots. I sure hope so.

The HHS article describes the entry of robots into the Japanese health care setting in glowing terms: “Robots already play a key role in Japanese hospitals and healthcare facilities. They are able to look after senior citizens, sing with them, and engage with them in other activities.” Maybe seniors like to sing with them; who knows? After all, the Japanese were the ones who invented karaoke.

However, a motivating factor for the increasing use of robots in Japan is the fear that as the Japanese population ages, there won’t be enough health care workers to take care of them if they don’t create robots to do so. I think if they insist on using exclusively Japanese health care workers they’re right, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

This is Panasonic’s Hospi Type R, essentially a self-driving medicine chest on wheels, “designed to move fragile or bulky medicine and equipment around a hospital.” Wi-fi, cameras, and preprogrammed maps help it navigate; it’s locked by a system that uses an ID security card for access. It was nicknamed “the pink Dalek”–clearly by someone who doesn’t have a clue about the Daleks‘ favorite one-word catchphrase!


In the Asian healthcare scene, “More and more, hospitals all over the world are realizing that robots are efficient messengers who transport materials like food, x-rays, and linens throughout the hospital, saving wear and tear on the feet of over-worked nurses and aides.” Or medicines–pharmacy robots on wheels!–as does the Hospi Type R, shown above.

To my mind a good argument for using robots in a nursing situation would be for tasks “that are physically very demanding and stressful for humans”  (All at once we’re back to Ryan Calo’s “three Ds”).

This is Robear, a prototype robot designed in an effort not to scare the living crap out of fragile elderly patients while it helps to transport them safely. Why a bear? It’s supposed to look “like a friendly polar bear.” Okay. Well, no uncanny valley problems here, anyway!

Not sure how Robear would work in real life? here’s a very short video:

Horizon Healthcare Staffing might not be able to get their hands on this nifty new tech fast enough, but I’ll be interested to see how well the public accepts Robear, the “pink Dalek,” Actroid-F, and their robotic kin.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic, and to Bonnie Hutchinson’s “Star Trek Voyager” Pinterest Board for the photo of Robert Picardo as EMH Mark I. 

I appreciated not only the photo of a doctor and patient talking to each other on LiveClinic’s interesting article “Do Computers erode Doctor and Patient Trust?” but also the article itself, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the Susskinds’ observation about WebMD. 

Many thanks to the Re-Tails Blog‘s post about health care robotics in retail pharmacies, for the photo of the telemedicine delivery robot with the hospital patient. 

My gratitude also goes out to WeirdAsiaNews for the photos of the robotic nurse Actroid-F, to The Verge for the photo of the Panasonic Hospi Type R, to NationalFutur, for the still photo of the Robear, and to WXYZ-TV Detroit and YouTube for the video of Robear in action. 

Moral and historical responsibilities

The Artdog Quotes of the Week:

Today I present a study in contrasts.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks for the global community on this one. United States leadership still persists in questioning the science to a greater extent than any other major nation. Including, unfortunately, this guy:

IMAGES: Many thanks to the World Economic Forum for the Ban Ki-moon quote (check the linked page for more good ones), and to Business Insider, CNN and Bill Nye for the quote graphic from the regrettable orange person. Unfortunately, Bill’s solution failed to be implemented effectively.