Human element remains key even in the age of data
In 1950, the year I was born, Alan Turing, who is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, wrote a paper that opened with a question: “Can machines think?” More than half a century later, the answer seems to be: “Yes, but ...”.
As someone who’s been described as the ultimate don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts person, I’m not the quintessential authority on human intelligence, let alone artificial intelligence. I am, however, concerned about the number of established businesses and fledgling entrepreneurs who are increasingly eager to bet the farm on what the data tells them.
In other words, algorithms and data should not interfere with good, old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurship, no matter how distant that day may be.
Here’s an example of what I mean: There are certain industries where big data is king. We’re starting to see headlines like BlackRock Is Making Big Data Bigger in Institutional Investor magazine, and Last Days of the Stock Picker as Money Managers Embrace AI in the Financial Post.
Reports like these demonstrate the reach that AI is having in business, but we must not forget that unlike machines that “think”, only humans have the ability to look at an idea or market opportunity and say “to hell with the data. Maybe this doesn’t work in theory, but my gut tells me it will work in practice.”
Such courage to make decisions that go against what the data might suggest are based on any combination of past mistakes, anecdotal market intelligence (for which your own people in the field are a great source), or simply contrarian instincts that tell you that now is the time to throw caution to the wind and exclaim, “screw it, let’s do it” — or, rather, “screw the data, let’s do it.”
In fact, I wonder what data-driven AI would have said with regard to the chances of two guys named Steve — Jobs and Wozniak — successfully competing with the likes of IBM in the 1970s.
And what algorithm might have predicted that within just 13 years of Tesla’s founding, Elon Musk’s upstart could surpass the Ford Motor Company in market capitalisation — and do it with less than 2 per cent of Ford’s unit sales?
After all, while Musk was not a “car guy”, his instincts told him that despite previous stumbles in the industry, electric cars would eventually be the way of the future. Also, as high-tech as his solar, space and automotive ventures are, it’s intriguing that in 2014 Musk warned an audience at MIT that the tech sector should be “very careful” about AI: “With artificial intelligence,” Musk said, “we are summoning the demon”.
In 1984, when we started Virgin Atlantic Airways, the demon we confronted was another kind of AI — Airline Intelligence — in the shape of deeply entrenched giants like British Airways, Pan Am and TWA.
Traditional airline metrics were essentially screaming, “This is crazy! It cannot work! Don’t do it!” This is precisely why we didn’t let data get in the way.
While the so-called “industry experts” insisted that a venture like ours would be utterly unsustainable and doom us to an early demise, we were focused on thinking differently about business. If we were starting Virgin Atlantic today, I wonder how AI would quantify the benefits of an intangible like a flight attendant’s smile. What would the data say about winning customers over with courtesy and respect?
I’m especially concerned that people who are developing AI are doing so at the expense of developing human talent, and downgrading all the instincts and experiential learning that has propelled us from cave dwellings to today’s modern societies.
Whenever possible, companies must empower their people to make on-the-spot decisions and think on their feet.
If the rule books, systems and data-based procedures consistently get in the way, they should be encouraged to question them rather than to blindly accept the status quo.
This is a lot easier for a person to do, but impossible for a machine — at least for now.
In a nutshell, machines may be able to think, but they are devoid of empathy, a uniquely human characteristic that goes a very long way in business and life in general. So while I am very excited about the opportunities that AI will afford us all, in business and in daily life, I am more than happy to keep putting my faith in the brilliance of humans, too. it’s almost