I’m a bit of a geek / nerd / techy. I love technology. However, I worry about where we are today and where technology is headed. I worry about the over-reliance on technology to do our thinking for us and I worry about the deceit and betrayal of trust we see what happens when an online platform achieves monopoly status. Exhibit A: Facebook.
All of my business life I’ve been involved in technology, and technology being what it is, it crosses over into my personal life. But I’m OK with that. I am after all a bit of a geek. I think I just said that. I have always been an early adopter and through personal experience and exploration I’ve tried to learn from the consumer Internet what may happen in the business Internet. All consumers are not business people, but all business people are consumers and what we learn in consumer-land informs our expectations in business-land.
On occasion my extrapolations/predictions on the future applications in technology to business have been accurate. Other times I’ve got it wrong. More often, I got it right but got the timing wrong. Large business seems to adopt technology at a slower pace that I expect. (E.g. When Altify was founded in 2005, we had a vision of cloud, AI-based, mobile, always-on and connected as de rigueur for business interactions. It was really 2010 before that became a reality, as Salesforce crested the $1Bn mark and the Salesforce Economy became a meaningful phrase.)
Experience Shapes our Behavior
I was an early user of Twitter and LinkedIn and I still use both of those applications today even though I feel their value is declining. The signal-to-noise ratio is now very low – almost unacceptable.
I’ve never really been an active Facebook user – I was never comfortable with publishing the details of my personal life online.
In each case though I tried to observe behavior, my own and others, to keep a pulse on societal change as we’ve edged inexorably towards a blend of human and machine life. Up to recently I’ve not been concerned about an imbalance between the two.
Sometimes I invested in technology just because it was cool and I want to explore the newness and contemplate the possibilities. I remember buying a piece of jewelry in the early days of eBay just to learn about the experience, how it all worked. The system worked well of course and my wife got an unexpected gift. I think that was in 1999.
eBay was a forerunner of a changing mindset, and in its early heyday more influential than Amazon or any of the other e-assets. Everyone could become a merchant and many of us learned how to buy and sell online though experiences with eBay or similar platforms. We have all become accustomed to replacing physical buying experiences with the online usurper.
More recently, in 2016, I invested Bitcoin so that I could begin to learn about blockchain and its role in the trust network.
I care a lot about the concept and reality of trust as a pivot point for relationships whether business or personal, online or offline. Bitcoin’s supporters would suggest that blockchain could be the online network of trust and that’s exciting. After Salesforce’s recent announcement, I am interested to see what they will unveil at Dreamforce in that regard. I hope it pertains more to trust/privacy rather than crypto-currency.
With every technology I have used, tested, experienced, I’ve tried to figure out how it improves the human condition. Does it remove or reduce inefficient tasks? Does it help to do things that were heretofore impossible or very difficult? Is the effort required to engage with the technology worth the return?
But more recently I have also questioned whether the technology helps me to make better judgments, or is it making the judgments for me? I’ve wondered whether the technology encourages creativity, or reduced my desire/need to imagine? I’m happy to offload tasks to the machine, and I’m not worried about AI taking my job. However, as I speak to others who are concerned about Ai threatening their jobs, apart from the natural concern about the need to pay the rent and feed the family, the deep-down concern seems to be more about a theft of purpose, not a theft of the job per se.
“If the robot can do what I did before”, they say, “then what’s my worth”?
The essence of being human is in question.
What does the A in AI Stand For?
In each of the five companies I have started, we always focused on applying technology to improve human performance (not to replace it). My first company was an artificial intelligence software company. This was 30 years ago when AI in business was first deemed possible. (Then AI wasn’t cool for about 25 years after than but it’s cool again now!) In that company, with our customers, we delivered many AI powered applications in financial services – particularly successfully in the insurance business.
Generally speaking, the same AI rules apply in business today as they did then; the only big differences are the huge growth in data that in limited cases informs meaningful Machine Learning business applications and the available computing power.
(I write a lot about this in my most recent AI book: Tomorrow | Today: How AI Impacts How We Work, Live and Think.)
In B2B Enterprises – the domain where I have most experience – the A in AI really stands for ‘Augmented’, not ‘Artificial’. It’s about augmenting the performance of humans by leveraging the performance of the machine. It should not be about Machine V Human, but more about Human + Machine.
The essence of being human matters.
There are many great minds today working on AI today. Tech giants are spending big. In 2016 that investment was over US$20 billion. In 2017, VC investment in AI doubled to US$12 billion. In many cases however, AI is being used to develop better algorithms to make us click on ads, follow predetermined links to Internet destinations, or share biased content. Think about the algorithm that autocompletes your Google search for you. It is probably the most widely used application of Machine Learning AI on the planet today.
The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks,” said data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher, founder of Cloudera.
Who Needs To Think Anymore? Is The Algorithm Taking Over?
But the constant pursuit of clicks is not the only problem. When Google can provide answers to every question that you have, or Amazon can tell you what else you should buy based on other people’s purchases (People who bought this also bought this), or Netflix can recommend the movies that you should watch next, why should you have to think at all? If the future is an algorithm-based one, where’s the value in critical thinking, reasoning, perception or judgment? Where’s the value in human relationships?
I recently flew to a small town in the Midwest of the United States. Because it was a small town, the airport was small and the aircraft used to service the route was also small. In this particular case I think it was Embraer 145.
The Embraer has a capacity for about 45 passengers with two on one side of the aisle and one on the other. The size of the aircraft becomes a problem when airline overbooks the flight. That number (45) is just too small to flex. And so it was on my flight. The airline had overbooked the flight and the attendant at the check in desk had to ask for volunteers to take a later flight. Unfortunately there were too few volunteers; so some travelers who wanted to travel had to be bumped off the flight.
I’m not sure how the unlucky ones were chosen and according to the check-in desk attendant, he did not know either. The conversation I overheard went something like this:
Passenger: “Why was I selected to be bumped?”
Check-in desk: “It’s just the algorithm, I don’t know how it works but it’s the algorithm, so you don’t have a seat.”
Passenger: “ I have an important meeting to attend, can you help me out?”
Check-in desk: “It’s the algorithm. The algorithm decides everything now. I have no say.”
I’m not blaming the check-in desk attendant. (Well, maybe just a little.) Through the auspices of his overlords, he was now living inside the machine, and, (perhaps vicariously) had abrogated his responsibility to think, to take ownership of, or responsibility for, the decision, or to build any relationship of the decision. None of this is good.
The Role of AI
The reason I started Altify in 2005 was to use smart technology to improve the lives of sales people. But sometimes technology gets in the way. It is true to say that sales organizations using Altify solutions perform better than those who don’t. That’s not my opinion – it’s the objective market measure.
But the reason why Altify customers perform better than their peers is not just because of the AI that’s embedded in the software – though that is certainly part of it, the AI providing continuous contextual guidance to the sellers and managers – it is because the software provides a framework to help sellers uncover how to solve their customer’s business problems so that they can deliver maximum impact for their customers. That’s the underlying foundation on which sustainable business relationships are built – and there is no success in business without business relationships. There is no success in sales without impactful connections between the right people in the seller’s organization and the right people at the customer – and that’s not something that can be outsourced to technology.
When I talk about building successful relationships, I’m talking about mutual authentic engagement between buyers and sellers, founded on trust and respect, guided by shared values in pursuit of shared goals. While this is a high threshold to achieve, it is what each party deserves.
The buyer/seller engagement is just an example of personal interactions – one with which most of my readers are familiar – and I use it only as a silhouette against which I want to paint a broader picture. Humans are textured complex beings. Sometimes they’re ornery, sometimes irksome. They bring joy, passion, body-shaking laughter, tears and pain. At the heart of every human relationship is a heart or two. Their patterns are not predictable and they can delight or disappoint in turn.
But for me, human-land is where I choose to live and it’s where I want to take my chances. The alternative that some of the leaders of some technology companies want to create is my picture of dystopia. As we vote with our clicks and registrations we get some say in whether we want to perpetuate those dystopian models.
As Jaron Lanier said:
We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.
It All Comes Back To The Music
There’s a reason why vinyl records are making a comeback.
On vinyl records, the sound quality is richer, more textured.
Like humans, vinyl is analog, not digital – just more real.
I prefer it that way.