Spice Up Your Value

Perhaps it's my copious consumption of science fiction, but every once in a while an article about robots and AI replacing humans freaks me out! Technology moves faster than ethics and faster still than government, so I'm not holding my breath for a job savior. In the past, manufacturing jobs have been a common casualty of technology, but increasingly even knowledge workers such as lawyers are on the chopping block. Please, hold your applause! It hurts my feelings. :p

My nightmare is to end up like this guy, with two "Efficiency" hawks perched across the table.

Question: "What would you say... you do here?"


"But wait, Joe, I make professional judgments that a computer is not qualified to make. Or wait, the quality I deliver from my years of learning X craft cannot be easily replicated by a non-human."

To which I would say, you are probably right. And I hope you continue to be right for the foreseeable future. However, history shows us that perceived value can change drastically. During the Middle Ages peppercorns were worth more than gold. In fact, peppercorns were accepted as legal currency, like a ducat. l love the sound of that word. Say it with me, "ducat." But seriously, even today the Dutch have an expression, "pepeduur," which means "pepper expensive" and is used to describe something very pricey.


Pepper and other spices played an early role in the success of what many consider the first multinational corporation - Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or as it is known in the English-speaking world, the Dutch East India company. It was the first company to issue stock, which was traded in Amsterdam in the first open-air stock market. The VOC monogram was possibly the first globally-recognized corporate logo, stamped on various corporate items ranging from cannons to coins. Based on feedback from a Dutch colleague Luc, I should note that the VOC's historical accomplishments are accompanied by criticisms surrounding the company's commercial monopoly, business practices and social impacts.


At its height, the VOC was the most valuable company in history - when adjusted to today's dollars it was worth $7.4 trillion dollars. In comparison, in early 2017, one of, if not the most valuable companies in the world, Apple, has a market capitalization of around $700 billion dollars. The pepper in our pantry must not have gotten the memo because while spices are not cheap, they certainly aren't worth their weight in gold anymore.

So what can lessons can we learn from the humble peppercorn, which went from local spice, to empire builder, to sale item at the local grocery?

Lesson #1. Value is not fixed, but temporary. This is the most important lesson. Your value can change at any moment. There are market forces outside your control that can drastically influence the way your services are valued. This may seem obvious, but if you really stop and think about this, it is a sobering fact.

"So what are some of the factors that might affect the value of my services?"

Lesson #2. New is valuable. Do your services address a new and growing need?

Lesson #3. Rare is valuable. How easy is it to find someone or something (e.g., a robot or program) to do your work?

Lesson #4. Pleasing is valuable. In what way do your services improve life for customers, your boss and the company?

Lesson #5. In demand is valuable. Just being rare does not create value if no one wants what you have to offer. But when something is rare, coupled with high demand, the price people are willing to pay skyrockets.

So while we can't stop progress or technology, we can take some time to think deeply about how our own value is generated. We can take steps to grow in a way that generates more value. This might include learning new skills or shifting roles or industries. As an advanced tactic, we can perceive trends as they are happening, anticipate new areas of value and position ourselves to take advantage ahead of time. I will spare you the fantastic, but fantastically overused Wayne Gretzy quote. Instead, I'll leave you with this...

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others?
It's the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant. I'm better than good. I'm the best. I'm the perfect servant.
I know when they'll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.
~Mrs. Wilson, from the movie Gosford Park
Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.


Jo Knows Robots

Joanna Bryson is a Professor in Artificial (and Natural) Intelligence who consults on AI ethics, particularly on the obligations of AI developers towards AI and society. She's probably forgotten more about robot ethics than most people will ever know.

As the pace of robotic development quickens at an exponential rate, it's important to think of the implications to society. Tech Crunch has a useful article which summarizes the fascinating dialogue Joanna recently had on an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. For example,

"We are used to applying ethics to stuff that we identify with, but people are getting WAY good at exploiting this and making us identify with things we don’t really have anything in common with at all."

Click here for the full discussion.

Cue haunting theme music from "Humans"...

Next post Saturday, 6:30 a.m.