#200 - Is Tech The New God?
Also: A famous flop, hate speech, thinking systems, Amazon's model, and more...
200 episodes ago, when I started this newsletter, I was just trying to keep a few colleagues updated about ongoing tech and innovation news. Since then this has developed wings and morphed into a pegasus, or a centaur (or maybe a pegacentaur!, and many of you have miraculously stuck around. Thank you. I'm also grateful to the efforts of my colleagues who have in the past helped with the newsletter - especially Marianna who managed the newsletter for a few months. As we hit a milestone edition, I'm pondering how to make this better. How to make sense of all the innovation and newness all around us? How to choose between technological progress and social challenges? Is long form content better or a set of smaller formats? More video? Wider interests?
So here are a few things you will see change. For one, instead of writing one long piece, I'm going to explore doing a series of shorter pieces. Second, I'm going to practice what I preach, and 'bring my whole self' - I have a wider set of interests many of which I have hitherto kept out of this newsletter. Till now. What are they, you ask? Well, you'll see it as we go. And as always there is no final answer, we're always in Beta and always experimenting. Thanks again, for reading.
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Is Technology The New God?
In a show I saw recently, they ask a religious person about whether they would have a secret affair. "No", he says. "Why not? " "Because He would know!" The same question is put to an atheist. "No", he says. "Why not?" "Because I would know!".
Let's say you're driving a car on a 30 miles per hour road. You're running late so you're creeping over the speed limit - up to 35 miles per hour. You see a sign that says 'traffic camera ahead' and you slow down even though you can't see the camera.
What drives our behaviour with respect to laws and rules, be they societal, ethical, or legal? Some of us have a well calibrated value system. Some of us rely on a transactional punishment model, where we follow rules when the chance of discovery is higher, and we game the system when we can. Some of us believe in an omniscient god who sees what we do, no matter how clandestine the activity.
The reality is that today, there is a very specific record of your speeding - thanks to the multitude onboard systems in a car. Whether or not God saw it, your car very likely knows you were going above the speed limit. And if your car is a connected car, the chances are that your auto manufacturer can also access this information should they choose to. Not only that, it's likely that your speed is being captured by your mobile phone as well.
And what about the affair? Well we know that there have been instances where super market data can reveal affairs. And equally, your phone's location services may leave clues to what was going on. Not to mention your messaging apps.
The bottom line is that technology is increasingly omniscient. And there is an argument, with AI and decision automation that leads to a scenario where without any human intervention all of this data can be assimilated and acted upon. A society may choose to cast a blind eye to affairs but implement a 3 strikes system of warnings to anybody who crosses a speed limit. Not only that, with this universal data model, you can clearly separate habitual speed limit defaulters from the occasional ones, or distinguish between marginal and egregious speed crimes.
Omniscience is just one of the many attributes of God. I recently extended this model a bit and tried to establish what qualities we ascribe to god, and whether the technology we are creating today can stake a claim for becoming a 'God' for tomorrow. Of course, this is a monotheistic argument and the conversation becomes more interesting if you go down the polytheistic model. But I do believe that we are on the path to creating technology that can act as our conscience, our decision guide, and the keeper of our morals, in much the same way as many people use God and religion for, today.
Dick Fosbury, Innovator
Up until 1968 high jumpers scissor kicked their way over bar, or did the 'western roll' or straddle method. And then Dick Fosbury came along and changed high jumps forever. He approached with his back to the bar and arched himself over it head first, effectively landing on his neck. Keeping in mind that when he started the landing material wasn't as soft as foam, this would have involved some risks. Through his school and college years, even as he kept improving, his coaches kept urging him to go back to the tried and tested methods. Even his place in the Olympic team required more than one set of trials. But he did make it and went on to win the 1968 Olympic High Jump gold medal with an Olympic Record of 2.24m. At the next Olympics in Munich, 70% of the competitors used the Fosbury Flop. And as many of you know, in the physics of the Fosbury Flop, the centre of gravity of the jumper actually passes under the bar.
Innovation usually has 2 components - different and better. Finding the right solution by experimenting, and the technique and practice to make it better than the alternative. Fosbury passed away recently but his method has not been superseded yet. More than 50 years later, high jumpers still use the Fosbury Flop.
Can AI Stop Hate Speech?
One of the biggest challenges of our times is the problem of controlling hate speech or online bigotry - racial, gender, or sexuality based. Social media is rife with this. Twitter is a prime example. Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka were subject to horrible racist abuse after the Euros in 2020. The challenge has apparently been the inability of platforms to monitor every comment made on the platform. This is seen as a capacity problem, rather than a capability or intent problem. The question in my mind was always about whether technology could and should be a part of the solution.
So this article is quite interesting - it talks about AI being used to track voice based abuse in online video games. Note this is voice, which is much harder to control. If this can be done, then there is absolutely no excuse for the Twitters and Facebooks to not be able to do this at scale and effectively. The guidelines are presumably unambiguous about this so in the case of Twitter for example, it really boils down to intent.
Listening to the fascinating FT podcast on quantum computing, a very important distinction between the scientific vs engineering mindset comes through strongly. A scientific mindset looks at a phenomenon such as quantum entanglement, and seeks to understand it - in order that it might be modelled, and reveal deeper truths about itself, other phenomena, or the universe. An engineer looks at the same phenomenon, and seeks predictable behaviour that she can use practically, and predictably to solve a problem - i.e building a quantum computing machine. Both these mindsets, along with other thinking systems such as design thinking, systems thinking and philosophical thinking all need to be a part of the innovators toolkit.
Talking about design thinking, in this insightful video, the former Arsenal footballing great Thiery Henry is talking about the current hot striker Erling Haaland, at Man City. And what he says is that as a striker, he learnt to appreciate how each of his players played the game and adjust his game accordingly. Robert Pires liked to play short passes, so he had to be close to Pires. Freddy Ljungberg was fast but you had to be in his line of sight to receive a pass from him. Bergkamp was talented enough to find you anyway. And his advice to Haaland is also to understand his team mates individual styles and preferences similarly so he can adjust his game to theirs, to be more effective.
And I thought, what a wonderful example of applying empathy in a team sport. As a star player, it's even more noteworthy that Henry recognises this because it makes him and his team even more effective. I wonder in our everyday work how often we think about exactly how each of our close colleagues prefer to interact, and whether we're willing to tweak our own styles to ensure we have have better outcomes as a team!
Amazon's Innovation Rules
Here's Amazon's CEO Andy Jassy talking about the 4 rules that guide Amazon's innovation initiatives.
1 - If we invest, could this be big and move the needle? (total addressable market)
2 - Is it being served well today? (problems compelling)
3 - Do we have a differentiated approach? (our strategy matters)
4 - Do we have a competence there, and if not, can we acquire it quickly? (ability to win)
Useful rules for large companies looking to build significant new businesses
AI's Linguistic Skills and Why It Matters
When children start pre-school, the advice often given to parents is to focus on language and communication, and basic numeracy. Because once you can read and count, and understand language, everything else follows. AI is a little bit like a young child. Smart but undertrained. A lot of the criticism you see today is based on what it can't do yet.
But once it gets language and numbers, similarly, there is really no upper limit to what it can learn, given time, data, and training. Or rather, if there is an upper limit it might be significantly higher than the human limit for learning or operating.
The Power of Good Storytelling
Among the movies I've watched recently are 'Tenet', and 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'. Both are hugely ambitious movies that try to weave a bewilderingly complex narrative that can be overwhelming. One weaves back and forth through bi-directional time, and the other, as the title suggests, involves simultaneous parallel universes. But in the end, while Tenet, a typical Christopher Nolan movie involving time shifting didn't leave much of a mark on me, I found Everything Everywhere much more memorable. I suspect that the difference is that in the latter, there is a fidelity to a core emotional plot-line. Simple might be too strong a word, but it is clearly articulated, which somehow makes the special effects and the narrative gadgets the backdrop to the human story. Tenet is a story about an abstract concept, which is illustrated by the characters. Everything Everywhere is a story about people, told through abstract concepts.
Healthcare: End to obesity - Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly both have developed approved drugs that will help you reduce weight without the pain of diets and exercise. These are essentially diabetes drugs at a different dosage. However, insurers are still debating coverage. (Economist/ NBC News)
Cybersecurity - Physical security keys - as an option to strengthen online safety (WSJ)
Generative AI: What it will mean to grow up with it from childhood? (Bloomberg)
Generative AI can now draw hands - why is this a big deal? (Washington Post)
Healthtech: Babylon Falls from grace and might have to retract from it's NHS contracts and focus on the US market (FT)
Healthtech: CRISPR based cures - sickle cell disease and others. Is regulating gene editing as important as regulating AI? (MIT Technology Review)
Thinking Systems: Limitations of design thinking - this one is for all the people I meet who want to run design thinking workshops irrespective of what the problem is. (MIT Technology Review)
Creativity: Andy Serkis talks about his world and what creativity means. (FT)
AI: Morality for machines - can machines be taught to be moral or ethical? (Medium)
Transformation: 4 types of business transformation (HBR)
Future Think: Imperial College technology foresight mapping (Imperial College)
Mixed Reality: Introduction to AR - how it really works. (Medium)
Innovation: Underground Innovation - why those missionary or explorer projects could be valuable to your organisation if you could harness them. (Sloan Mgmt Review)
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