Recently the 10 year old daughter of my friend Ed asked him if Artificial Intelligence means we can stop thinking. Read more about that at CNBC. We both were perplexed and were not able to give an answer to this curious question. This extremely smart question cannot be simply answered with a yes or no. It triggered my own thinking and curiosity, after we had just mentioned the word Innovation. How will Artificial Intelligence contribute to Innovation in a Corporate Environment?
This little girl is right and wrong. Given her age, she thinks in a binary fashion: yes or no, good or bad, like or hate. This is normal, my 10 year old son does the same. This way of looking at things is very much ingrained in western culture. Good or bad. It is a simple concept. Religions use it all the time. And in Hollywood, they make movies with good guys versus bad guys. And good always wins after 90 – 110 minutes. Good or bad, there is no in-between.
Well there is, the real world is analog, not binary, and we need to think. Thinking is tough, and something many people really do not like to do, because thinking sometimes leads to conclusions they don’t like. Good or bad is easier. Well, for those who don't like to think, there is now a solution.
Computers have taken over a large part of our workload and have been becoming more and more intelligent. They can do even more of our work as they get more intelligent, so therefore we call it Artificial Intelligence. And that is not good or bad thinking anymore. It does not mean that we have to give over the entire thinking process to Artificially Intelligent machines. There is still soooo much thinking to do. We hardly have time to think. Do you? Can you afford to sit one day a week and really think? We had a long discussion on that, at the University of Chicago when I studied there. We concluded that spending 10% of our time thinking would be ideal: half a day per week. In reality, that is impossible. Now if we can outsource a part of that thinking to a machine, wouldn’t that be great?
What parts of thinking should be outsourced?
Specialists hardly innovate. Innovation comes from holistic approaches. In a corporate environment, it means looking beyond the silos. We are living in a time where corporations are silos, and they are linked at the C level. Even there, the CEO may be biased to promote one silo more than another: the silo she came from. There are CEOs that come from finance, from sales, from engineering, and they tend to be biased towards their silo.
Innovation has two main angles:
Beginning in the 20th century, really new things came into society: radio, TV, aircrafts, cars, phones. I call them new, yes they had some relation with things from the past (cars were coaches without horses etc.), but new solutions came to life. This created verticals of industry that hardly collaborated. They really had nothing in common.
Later that century, we started to innovate by combining things. We had telco, we had computers, and we had data transmission. We combined that and created the smartphone. Just close your eyes and do an exercise, find 5 of these combinations. These combinations are mathematically easy to make, with N products, technologies or existing solutions, you can make N(N-1)/2 combinations, it grows with the square of N. Remember Metcalfe's Law? So just run systematically through your corporation, define the combinations and decide per which combinations make sense. Many will not make sense.
This combining of ideas and the subsequent collaborations, means crossing the borders between silos. And these borders are real medieval walls, not easy to break down.
Back to Artificial Intelligence. Instead of the CEO thinking at the top of all these silos, Artificial Intelligence could help us to think better at lower levels. It can help to break these barriers between the silos. These barriers exist and are tough to break (“Stupid sales people”, “Bean counters”, “Oh my god, engineers” are well know expressions I have heard many times). It means humans in a corporate environment are not too keen on communicating between these silos, to think and collaborate cross-silo, but an Artificial Intelligence machine can do this without bias. Every silo feeds its knowledge into the system and Artificial Intelligence does the rest. Yes I admit, very oversimplified, but this is the source of innovation in my view.
Conclusion: Artificial Intelligence can help CEOs to get things done by delegating more of their C level thinking to the lower echelons. And it is about time we listen more to our children. They really are smarter than we think.