The Future of Questions

Computers are useless; they can only give you answers”. Pablo Picasso

For anyone paying attention – as I know, dear reader, you are – you’ll have no doubt noticed that the debate about artificial intelligence is becoming almost as intense – almost – as the US Presidential campaign.

Every day new articles, new movies, new TV shows, new conferences, new books, appear, warning us that the robots are coming. The latest recent gathering of the global socio-economic elite, in Davos – Woodstock en Piste – majored on the role of AI in the “4th Industrial Revolution” and the impact AI will have on the future of jobs. If there was a Sypder Index Fund tracking AI commentary (traded algorithmically, naturally – pun intended) it would be worth stuffing into your 401k.

There are, of course, many similarities between the AI debate and the political one; both are really, as the WEF recognized, about the future of work; how to get work, how to secure work, what work fundamentally is, in an age where code can do more and more things that humans have traditionally traded for money. And both are examining the nature of artificially; “authenticity” versus “political expediency” is a central tenant of the political race; “wetware” versus “software” is core in the race against the machine.

And just as in the political debate, the loudest, most extreme voices seem, at present, to be capturing most of the oxygen in the room. For Trump and Sanders in politics, read Kurzweil and Musk in AI. For Ray Kurzweil the singularity is near. For Elon Musk, AI represents “our greatest existential threat”.

As per usual your humble correspondent can see both sides of the argument. (In my defense your honor, I present F.Scott Fitzgerald’s famous words, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”). On the one hand it’s not hard to imagine that the offspring of the computer that won Go aren’t going to stop there. On the other hand though, a future where people are oppressed by malign machines seems straight from a back lot in Hollywood or Watford; fun to chew on with some popcorn on a Saturday night but hardly something your angst needs to grind on right now.

If you are increasingly anxious about the rise of machine intelligence though I’d strongly recommend the recent book What to Think About Machines That Think edited by John Brockman, Editor and Publisher of the very cool Brockman has rounded up essays by a lot of top wetware including Paul Saffo, Tim O’Reilly, Kevin Kelly, Nick Bostrom, and Esther Dyson, amongst many others, who all take different cracks at figuring out quite how worried/excited/blasé we should be. If there’s a consensus amongst the thinkers about what to think about machines that think it’s pretty hard to discern. Better software than what I have on board would be needed to figure that out. There are some, like Bruce Schneier from Harvard Law School, who wonder what happens when a omputer (not its operator) breaks the law. Others, like Josh Bongard from the University of Vermont, suggest that when “machines are commanded to “survive, reproduce, and improve in the best way possible” they will probably give us humans a very short window to relish that insight”. But then again, others feel aligned with Steven Pinker from the Department of Psychology at Harvard, who writes “My own view is that the current fears of computers running amok are a waste of emotional energy – that the scenario (i.e. the rise of AI) is closer to the Y2K bug than the Manhattan Project”.

Which brings me full circle back to that primo piece of wetware (not featured in Brockman’s book) Pablo Picasso. In 1968, when he made the remark above, computing was – as seen from 2016 – in its infancy. But it was powerful enough to fire the imagination of many who wondered where software would take us and what it would be like when we got there. Arthur C. Clarke was worrying about HAL. Philip K. Dick was dreaming of electric sheep. Michael Moorcock was already leaping ahead to speculate about the final program (US spelling!). It wasn’t hard, even then, to extrapolate that software would get cleverer and cleverer and one day get cleverer than us. Of course the Turing Test was already almost 20 years old by then, long enough for the kings of the swingers to worry how long they’d be the jungle VIPs (Disney’s The Jungle Book came out in 1967 ...)

Picasso though was less impressed and less concerned. His, at first gnomic, but on reflection, devastatingly profound statement, was spot on then, but even more spot on – even with the technological advances of the last 50 years – today. Computers have gotten great at giving us answers; ask Siri “what does the fox say” and she’ll (!) correctly answer “fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow”. Waze will tell us to avoid Route 17 because there’s just been a fender bender. Zapier will automatically create a Google Calendar event from an Evernote reminder. IFTTT will tell your family when you’re on the way home from work. But these are still all answers. We – the wetware – are still thinking of the questions. Even on the very far edge of the new frontier – the aforementioned game of GO – the real VIPs are humble and understated in their claims for where things stand; “It’s (sci-fi AI) very, very far in the future from the kinds of things we’re currently dealing with, which is playing Pong on Atari”, Demis Hassabis told the FT last year This nice compilation of quotes, rounded up by Business Insider, also injects a dose of healthy skepticism from those really in the know.

Now I wouldn’t go quite as far as Old Pablo in saying computers are useless; I quite like my iMac, iPad, PC, Apple Watch, E20, TV, car, etc etc (computers one and all). But I do think that Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso (would a computer think of that?) was onto something then and is still onto something now. We – not software – are the future of questions and questions remain more important than answers. Questions come first. Every answer begets a question.

Questions – curiosity –are/is (I would argue) the central defining characteristic of intelligence (as it is manifested in our human form). From our first words to our first steps to our first journey it is intrinsic to our very being to want to know who what why or where. Nobody tells us to ask questions. No parent, or teacher, or TV show, or social media feed tells us – programs us – to want to know “zup?” We just do. I wonder why? C’est une bonne question...

When computers start asking questions – “just what do you think you’re doing Dave?” – then I guess we can start worrying. But that – it seems to me – is as far as away in the future as it was 50 years ago.

I hope.

Please note that this is article was written by me, Ben Pring, not by Automated Insights or Narrative Science.

Pandora's Gift: Hope, Fear, and the Future of Work

We recently attended a local holiday soiree. Perhaps it will sound familiar. The scrum of children was playing happily (out of earshot). One table was laden with food and sweets, while another was groaning with wine and rum. Clutches of people would form to meet and talk, and then dissolve and re-form with a new set of topics and revelers. It was a perfectly nice party.

Except something felt a bit off. Many of the conversations landed someplace very dark indeed given the festive timing.

It took several trips around the party (and the punch bowl), but I finally dialed into the fact that many fellow revelers were more than a little concerned about the future.

  • Our crop of politicos is CRAZY.
  • We’re lucky we live where we do, but we’re at risk.
  • The refugee crisis is reshaping our world.
  • What are Russia and Turkey doing??
  • The market doesn’t make sense any more.
  • Where will the jobs be for our children?

And so on...

Maybe it’s me, or maybe I go to parties with mostly anxious people, but I don’t think so. Based on what we’ve heard in the business world over the past year, I would wager that your festive experiences might also be getting slightly muted by fears from our modern day Pandora’s Box.

These issues all resonated with me. Only a mad person would ignore what’s going on today and what could occur tomorrow. But in my day job I also see the amazing promise of what the future can bring, so I also have this (apparently) crazy sense of optimism. It was tough to calibrate it all, and it got me thinking more about Pandora (the Greek, not the music streaming service).  

We all know Pandora’s backstory. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity. Zeus, sometimes a bit of a sadist, decided to punish us too, so he sent Pandora. She was left alone with a stone jar. Curiosity got the better of her. She popped the lid off and -- oops! -- released the evils of the world. Notably, she was also quick enough getting the lid back on to retain Hope.

But what does a 3,000-year-old fable mean for work, business, and our lives today?

Many of our most pressing issues are largely connected to work, our jobs, our personal economies within organizations. New digital technologies -- sensors, robots, instrumentation, Big Data (also small), enhanced workers, and new levels of transparency -- are becoming more of a factor because it’s increasingly difficult to find an industry sector or job free from their advance. The impact will be profound, and -- as with every other technology shift -- not everyone will benefit, and that can be scary.

And yet, “becoming digital” is, I’m increasingly convinced, a big part of both the cause and an antidote to the some of the challenges touching our lives. If we use it wisely, technology can become an element of the hope that Pandora retained in her jar because it can help us solve problems, rather than just being a source of fear.  

This may sound like an Onion headline, “Tech futurist says technology is helpful.” Perhaps, but there’s more to it.

Automation will reduce demand for certain jobs, but digital is also opening up opportunities to improve productivity, open new markets, create new jobs, and fuel a groundswell of innovation. In addition to historical evidence, a growing body of new research is supporting a more hopeful future. Rather than eliminating knowledge work, “Jobs have been growing faster in occupations that use computers.” Data from study stretching back to 1871 shows that “technology has created more jobs than it's destroyed.” There is still job growth for traditional taxi drivers and hotel workers even though Uber and airBnB are both growing at amazing rates.

The point is, if we’re smart, we could be entering into a digital-fueled economic boom, rather than a barren, jobless dystopia so many fear.

So now we are all swirling in a froth of both hope and concern about our future of work. What to do? In Hesiod’s version of the story, Pandora let loose fear and evil onto humankind, but maybe we shouldn’t see her as a purely tragic figure. She was curious, bold, optimistic, interested in understanding and exploring the world. She was really the world’s first scientist; the first explorer. Before Pandora, we may not have had plague, war, or the Kardashians, but we didn’t have true free will either.

We obviously can’t solve all our issues with a blog post, and hope is not a business strategy, but we can keep Pandora’s gift in mind as we move into a world where work is reshaped by digital. Our problems may seem bigger than ever, but we have the tools to build the solutions we need.

In the non-fiction future of work, the robots will not take over all our jobs. Humans will not be left merely oiling and maintaining the Terminators.

If we make good choices -- personally and professionally -- we can help ensure that the doomsday prophets are as wrong now as they have ever been. Harmonizing work with technology in new ways will not prevent disruption, but it can give us all a solid long-term shot at productivity and innovation.

Technology is by no means a panacea for the many ills of the world, nor is it another Boogeyman from Pandora’s jar.

My colleagues and I at The Center for the Future of Work will continue to explore these ideas, and provide more practical guidance, throughout 2016. We hope you’ll join us in the conversation, and we wish you all a healthy, exciting, and prosperous future.

Paul is a Vice President and Global Managing Director at the Center for The Future of Work at Cognizant, a leading provider of information technology, consulting, and business process services. He is a co-founder of Cognizant Digital Works and also -- along with Malcolm Frank and Ben Pring -- a co-author of Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business. He can be reached at paul.roehrig@cognizant.comand followed on Twitter at #paulroehrig.

Images: Clay urn: Thinkstock, Credit: ba11istic; Tech Pandora: Thinkstock, Credit: dolgachov

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3 strategies for meeting expectations in the changing workplace

The advancement of technology, as well as the globalisation of the workplace and changing work patterns, is transforming the expectations of your typical employee.

As the workplace of the future evolves, leaders and managers will have to harness the right tools help them meet these expectations, whilst also providing the resources that their employees are coming to expect.

With this in mind, a recent article on the Biz Journals website suggested some approaches for how businesses of all sizes can deal with these growing expectations.

1. Increase employee satisfaction

Ensuring that your employees are satisfied is a guaranteed way to boost productivity; yet a Gallup study shows that just 32% of US employees are engaged in their roles. This means there's a valuable opportunity for employers to increase employee satisfaction and, as a result, overall productivity levels.

Millennials are accounting for a growing proportion of the workforce - this group wants to feel they are contributing something to their organization's wider goals. So, leveraging workplace collaboration tools and software, as well as embracing enterprise social media, will have to become more of a priority.

2. Give them mobile choices

Freelance and remote working are growing phenomenons, with rising numbers choosing this kind of work over traditional jobs. This will only continue as we see the increased adoption of wearables in the workplace. Employers must prepare for this if they are to attract and retain new talent; whether it's adopting a BYOD(bring-your-own-deivce) policy or providing mobile-friendly internal platforms and software.

3. Boost communication

Email has been the predominant business communications tool for the past twenty years or so; but with inboxes piling up and people preferring two-way, instantaneous communication, this is likely to change in the years to come. Meetings are also becoming less popular as they are seen to waste valuable employee time. Bosses will have to keep up with communication technologies that can provide alternatives to these increasingly outdated channels, and ensure that meetings are more about quality than quantity.