What makes you trust a chatbot?

Or better yet, should we trust chatbots?

Should we build relationships with AI bots?

Should our children?

Two recent podcasts explored issues of trust and relationships with chatbots and robots.

There’s.so.much.to.say.on.this. I’m writing up a storm elsewhere this week so I’m just parking them here for the curious. You should listen and then get your friends together for a podcast dinner to discuss it. Because it’s a wild topic sure to make for engaging conversation.

Science Friday – A Bot You Can Trust

Radiolab – More or Less Human

Now I really don’t want to go live on Mars

Justin Bieber Surprise GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

To be fair I’ve never wanted to travel to Mars. I’m perfectly happy with the options here on Earth. And after listening to the brilliant podcast mini-series, The Habitat, I really really really don’t want to go Mars. I’d never survive the trip.

I know this for sure now after listening to all six episodes of the The Habitat, a podcast that followed 6 NASA volunteers as they lived together in a Mars-like simulation. For one year this group lived on a volcanic surface in Hawaii, an environment picked to simulate the harsh terrain on Mars. They group isn’t allowed to go outside without suits. They live together in a small, confined environment with little private space. There are toilet issues. Personalities clash and nerves fray. Their spacesuits, the only way they can go outside on missions, are noisy and gross. The food is monotonous. There’s limited contact with the outside world. And it’s all done in the name of research.

The Habitat series is captivating storytelling. It will take you on a wild ride inside these peoples’ lives as they try to complete a full year inside the dome. Alongside their stories the Habitat also shares fascinating space history tidbits. It also raises plenty of questions about team work. It might leave you wondering how the eff anyone’s going to survive the trip to Mars with their sanity in tact.

Listen to it and then send it to your friend who insists they’d totally be down with a trip to Mars.

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The only podcast about a VC that I’ll listen to if I’m honest

I saw Arlan Hamilton speak during PDX startup week but I’ve been following her for just under a year after first reading her post Dear White VCs, If You’re Reading This Its Almost Too Late. She’s a VC and she speaks all the truth and lives it when it comes to investing in diverse founders (read: people of color, LGBT founders, and women).

In 2014 venture capitalists invested nearly $1.33BILLION in 976 SEED deals. I would argue that in 2015 there needs to be something around 50 DEALS in minority-led startups. There’s an entire ecosystem of newly educated minority coders and marketers and writers and financial wizards who are brilliant and nuanced and have different backgrounds and opinions and feelings…and all of that will inevitably lead to staggering innovation and profit. If you’re still doing sound bytes for TechCrunch and VentureBeat talking about how many black friends you have, or Periscoping yourself bumpin’ that new Lil’ Wayne joint in your million $ office, but aren’t writing checks to black founders — and checks the same size as your other deals at that — you’ve dropped the ball, my friend.

If you haven’t read it skip this post and just go read that. It’s worth it.

Listening to her speak is absolutely refreshing. I legit fan girled when I saw her speak because she just nails it. She calls out the industry. She gives advice that you haven’t heard over and over again. She’s reflective. And she’s fucking funny (VCs – not exactly known for their humor). Above all she’s real and she’s actually doing the hard work to invest in underrepresented founders. So yeah, I fan girl hard for her work.

Which is why the news that her company, Backstage Capital, is now featured on Gimlet Media’s podcast, Startup, made me positively giddy. My podcast list is crowded. Listening to a VC talk isn’t really my idea of good content (the convos seem to lack all sense of personality). And my podcast list is crowded.

But I made room for this one.

Because Arlan is right. She’s right about what she’s doing. And she’s working her ass off to do it.

So put this episode in your ears. Pay attention to what Arlan is doing. Support the companies that Backstage funds.

BONUS: An apprentice at Backstage, Chacho, wrote a solid article on how to get into VC. I worked a lot with aspiring VCs at Yale SOM, coaching them on how to do it. So many students just wanted to know where the jobs are posted but VC doesn’t at all work like that. Chacho’s advice sums it up so well. So if you’re working with interested students, no matter their academic background, send this their way: Advice to Aspiring Venture Capitalists

Note to Self has the conversations about technology that you’re probably not having

I’ve been obsessed with the podcast Note to Self ever since I heard about their Bored and Brilliant challenge, a challenge to get people off their phones and think creatively (I appreciated the one small observation challenge as I ride a lot of public transport and it was a fab way to pass the time). It seems almost cliche to talk about the impact technology has on our lives now; we’re all aware of it. But that awareness has made us less likely to talk about it (or maybe it’s just because we’re less likely to engage in conversations in general because of phones and technology.) Note to Self is the public conversation about how we as individuals and society engage with technology. It’s not judgy or preachy. It’s more observation and discussion. The topics stay with you post-episode. As I scroll through endless family phones on Facebook/IG, I constantly think about the episode, What to Think About Before Posting Family Photos. I can’t link to the episode so here’s the excerpt:

We asked how you share personal photos. Here’s what we learned from your 1,200 (!) answers. Psychologist Guy Winch joins Manoush to untangle our mixed posting emotions. Because our grams are complex. A trans listener is thankful his parents didn’t post during his teen years. A mom doesn’t understand her daughter’s online brand. A son wishes his dad included him in family snapshots. Nothing is just a pretty picture. Plus, the wonderful Charlotte Philby, former editor of Motherland magazine. Her family posts were part of her “brand” – until she stopped gramming cold turkey

Two weeks ago, Note to Self did a brilliant week featuring “Women Owning It Online.” The line up of people was diverse. The conversations fascinating. The host, Manoush Zomorodi, talked with YouTube influencer Lele Pons (who has over 20 million subscribers!!!), the talented Transparent star Trace Lysette, the artist Amy Sherrard (who painted Michelle Obama!), bad ass foreign correspondent Christiane Amanapour, the artist Barbara Kruger who oozes a gives zero fucks charm, and gif designer/artist (what a job!) Jasmyn Lawson.

I can’t seem to link to any of the individual episodes but just download them all in your favorite app. The interviews are motivating and perspective-shifting. They’re also brilliant escapism from the endless (doom-filled) news cycle.

Ok, McKinsey’s Future of Work podcast is actually pretty good

I’ll admit that listening to consultants talk doesn’t strike me as good podcast content. My podcast list is overflowing with no shortage of new recommendations. Anything I add has to compete with mighty fine podcasts like 2 Dope Queens, On the Media, Note to Self, The Read, Reply All, and Teaching and Learning in HigherEd. So I was torn when I learned that McKinsey puts out a Future of Work podcast. Grant it, this is my favorite professional subject. But there’s so much fluff in future of work circles and not enough meat. Fun fact: being a futurist doesn’t mean you have to be right. You just need research chops, a regular content production schedule, a brand with the phrase “future of work”, and an audience who will listen. It’s not rocket science.

So I was skeptical. But the McKinsey Global Institute puts in the hard work that you’d expect for a top global consulting firm. Their reports on the future of work are insightful and meaty. Their podcast is no different. I was pleasantly surprised. And by pleasantly surprised I mean I was taking loads of notes and couldn’t stop listening. It’s not terribly entertaining and feels a bit like watching CSPAN. But the podcast brings their valuable research on the future of work to life. It also broadens their research (hopefully) to audiences beyond MBA students and upper management. Anyone who is curious about how their career is going to shift should give it a shot. It pairs well with public transit rides.

I listened to their most recent episode, How Will Automation Affect Jobs, Skills, and Wages?, and could have quoted the whole damn podcast. I held back. Here are some of my favorite meaty bits.

On lifelong learning from Susan Lund, a partner McKinsey Global Institute:

It’s something that has been a bit of a mantra in the educational field. Everyone is going to have to be a student for life and embark on lifelong learning. The fact is right now it’s still mainly a slogan. Even within jobs and companies there’s not lifelong training. In fact what we see in corporate training data at least in the United States, is that companies are spending less. As we know right now people expect that they get their education in the early 20s or late 20s and then they’re done. They’re going to go off and work for 40, 50 years. And that model of getting education up front and working for many decades, without ever going through formal or informal training again is clearly not going to be the reality for the next generation.

Honestly I could quote so much from this podcast. Instead of the common “robots are going to take our jobs” narrative, they dive deeper into the subject, discussing how occupations will shift and what that means for workers. I’ll just quote this entire response on acquiring new skills, again from Susan Lund:

“We categorized 800 occupations into 58 categories. This is our shorthand way of showing how work might shift between them. For instance there’s a whole classification around customer interaction jobs. And that includes cashiers, call service representatives, etc. By grouping occupations into these categories we can start talking about which ones are growing and which ones are declining. So that number of somewhere between 75 million and 375 million people [around the world] may need to switch occupational category, means that they’re in a set of occupations that are actually shrinking in number. Some of those people are going to have shift to one of the growing occupational categories.

This is a big shift. It’s different from saying I’m one type of specialty nurse and now I need to be a different type. That would be a shift within an occupational category. Here, the changes we are talking about are very significant. It’s about somebody who may have been working in trucking or manufacturing learning to do something entirely different. Possibly a job in construction or healthcare or other types of things. This will require more than simply applying for that job. It will require some level of formal training to learn the new skills to become qualified to get that new job. This will be the defining challenge of our generation, is creating the programs and tools and opportunities for someone who is mid-career with a mortgage, with children who can’t afford to go back to school for two years to get an associates degree or four years to get a bachelors, but helping that person get the bare minimum of skills they need to get their foot in the door in an entirely different occupation and start off on a career ladder in an entirely new direction.”

You have to teach people how to become lifelong learners. You have to change the old mindset. You have to teach them how to make occupational shifts. You have to prepare them with practical advice and skills.

This is why I founded FutureMe School. We have to reinvent old career narratives and train people to adapt to multiple occupational changes over a lifetime. Which is exactly what we’re doing at FutureMe School.

Stay tuned.

Study abroad in… Evangelical America

It’s winter. I’m hibernating and on a podcast listening rampage. The latest: A secular student chooses a different experience for cultural immersion. Kevin Rose, a journalism student, joins Liberty University to understand a new perspective and get material for a future book.

This is a such a delightful story about stepping outside your comfort zone and remaining open to people who live wildly different lives that you.

There’s such potential for cultural exchange within our own country. People could experience one another’s views and have face-to-face conversation. It’s definitely not as glamorous as eating gelato on the piazza during your study abroad semester, but the impact of that cultural exchange experience within the US could be so beneficial.

Listen to this Moth episode here.

Where has the conversation gone?

The Boston Globe reports on how technology creates employee isolation which in turn causes work place interaction to suffer. From remote work to employees plugging into earbuds to escape open office noise (and annoying coworkers), employees are less engaged with each other at work. Fewer workplace interactions between employers result in less creativity, less productivity, and less motivation.

The solution? Design interactive spaces and create opportunities for employees to engage. One solution offered up by Humanyze, was to create a mobile coffee cart to stimulate impromptu conversations between different teams. The coffee station was strategically places between departments who worked on projects together to improve spontaneous conversation.

“If you create an environment where random people bump into each other, then every so often pretty amazing things will happen, and even more frequently, good things will happen,” said Ben Waber, chief executive of Humanyze, which analyzes workplace interactions and has seen its business quadruple in the past year. “It’s building those levels of trust so the right stuff can happen more frequently.”

This article is so timely. It’s no wonder organizations are starting to think strategically about conversation and interaction design. The decline in workplace conversation has been happening for years now. Chances are, you’ve had one of these things happen already today:

You texted or did emails during a meeting

You put in headphones to avoid a conversation with someone

You put in headphones to avoid the noise in an open office space

You emailed someone who sits near you instead of talking to them

You continued an email chain that could have been solved by picking up the phone and discussing it

You didn’t pick up the phone when someone called

You avoid a difficult conversation, instead opting to email it

You pulled out your phone during a lunch with coworkers

All of the above are conversation avoidance behaviors.

Here’s the truth: I did all of those things in my last workplace. And I watched my coworkers do similar things. None of these actions are wrong. In fact, they’re all social norms in the workplace. In my last workplace I saw opportunities for conversations – spontaneous or productive – decline on the regular. Management was constantly on their phones during meetings (despite insisting on a “no laptops during meetings” policy), including during interviews with potential employees. One of the deans was notorious for being on his phone during meetings unless it was his turn to talk at people (yes, at, not with), when he’d use his brute manners to command absolute attention for his turn. The leader of our department consistently emailed difficult news rather than having conversations in person. Everyone was so busy. Few people had time to give you their full attention for a conversation. Many people outright avoided it. I took part in conversation avoidance too. Because here’s the thing: this was normal.

I’m fascinated by the evolving social norms around communication in the workplace. I’m nearly done reading Sherry Turkle’s, Reclaiming Conversation, which is a must-read book for anyone who’s noticed how our communication habits are changing. Her book dives into the decline in conversation between people in the workplace and the impact that it has on organizations. But she goes beyond just the effect on the workplace. She examines family relationships, dating, and friendships too. She puts a spotlight on the digital communication tools we use and how it changes our relationships, often not for the better. The themes that Turkle covers in her book – less conversation between people, obsession with our phones, less connection at work between colleagues – are all familiar themes. What makes this book so perspective-shifting is the in-depth examination of the impact digital communication is having in our everyday lives. She combines ethnographic observations and hundreds of interviews with students, professionals, and families, to share perspectives that should challenge our apathy towards the negative effects of digital technology.

The book has certainly challenged my apathy. It’s also helped me better understand the experiences I have with job seekers. The job search is a persuasive act, one that requires communication and conversational skills. The interview and negotiation process are conversations. Informational interviews are conversations with (ideally) interesting people. Yet so many job seekers struggle when I tell them they can’t negotiate over email. In coaching sessions I’ve seen blank faces when I have explained how to conduct informational interviews. So many job seekers lack confidence in themselves to know what to say or how to sound interesting. They seem uncomfortable with the idea of starting conversations with strangers. Students panic at phone interviews. Now, none of these things have ever been pleasant. Job seekers have never enjoyed them. But in my conversations with job seekers so much coaching revolves around how to have conversations with people. My networking workshops have evolved now to teach people how to have a conversation: how to enter them, what to say, how to be engaging, and how to exit. It seems so basic and yet every time I do it I get loads of positive feedback. The emphasis isn’t at all on career – it’s on conversation.

The future of work belongs to those with communication skills: the soft skills that allow you to work across teams, engage with people from different backgrounds, and adapt to new situations. These skills are hard to develop if your every day communication takes place on text and email. These skills require a comfort with conversation and the ability to process unstructured, verbal communication. In her book, Turkle shares anecdotes from young professionals who struggle to have conversations because they’re unscripted. They prefer to have time to think about the answer and write a correct response. Open-ended conversations are too risky.

My copy of her book is filled with dog-eared pages. I’m talking about it so much to friends that they’re eyes start glazing over, probably in the self-awareness that they’d like to pull out their phone and check their notifications. Or maybe it’s from boredom with the subject. Or maybe it’s because we’re all little uncomfortable when someone points out the truth about phone overuse and the decline of quality conversations. But none of us talk candidly about the impacts of it. I was at a dinner recently with friends who I hadn’t been together with in ages. The conversation was lacking. I couldn’t figure out if it was a product of not being in each others lives on the regular or the decline of conversational skills due to phones. And then two friends pulled out their phones to retreat, possibly because they were bored (indeed the conversation was boring). I wish I could assign Turkle’s book to all my friends so they were at least aware of how our conversations are interrupted, changed, and impacted by phones. Now when I’m socializing with friends this book is all I can think about.

If you’re new to Turkle’s work or interested in how the role of digital technology affects the workplace and family watch her talk below.

Accent party

Your oral apparatus – lips, tongue, jaw, throat – functions likes a machine, a precision tool to produce the sounds of your native tongue. To learn a different accent you have to understand how that machine works, take it apart and reassemble it. – PRI World, Why People are Still Trying to “Lose” their Accent

This delightful episode takes you on a linguistic ride into people’s attempt to rid themselves of their accent. From immigrants to Bostonians to Southerners, people trying to lose their accents share their motivations and challenges.

This episode has it all: tonal languages, tongue stretches, survival words, writing accents into novels, and questioning why its still acceptable to make fun of people with accents. Listen as a Russian woman moves from a Russian accent in English, to a British one, to an American one. It’s an amazing linguistic feat.