The rise of deep learning and machine learning are radically changing our relationship to data. For evidence, look around you to see the impact that algorithms, data, and machine learning are already having on our daily lives. In his recent keynote address at Oversight’s [in]sight 2018 conference, futurist and author Mike Walsh challenged attendees to ask dangerous questions such as:
What would happen if we were able to anticipate people’s intentions and behaviour? For example, “an algorithm could be used to predict which items you will order in the future. Then, in anticipation of your future order, those items would have already entered the supply chain by being transported to the regional distribution center nearest your home.”
How is the way we interact with technology changing? Our entire bodies – from facial to voice recognition – are becoming interfaces that unlock access to applications and data.
How are devices and personal technology influencing our behaviour? “We talk about the Internet of Things and wearables, but what if we were able to weaponize those with our knowledge of behaviour economics?” Walsh suggested. Say, we’re visiting Rome and we’re wearing smart sneakers. “Could they vibrate and give us subconscious cues that there’s an interesting Piazza nearby? Already, our Fitbits and Apple Watches are reminding us to move every 50 minutes – even to breathe and do yoga.”
This is the age of algorithmic business, Walsh noted. It’s the time to think about how we reinvent, redesign, and reimagine what we do.
“For large organizations, it’s a challenge for your team and your organization to be transformative, innovative and agile. It’s got more to do with scale,” Walsh said. “There’s no rule that you have to be a tech company in order to embrace artificial intelligence. Technology is just your hardware. The hard part is your software. Culture is your operating system. This is the part that’s on you. You can invest in the best technology. You can bring on the best partners. You can reinvent your enterprise technology. Unless you can find ways to tap into the potential of the human beings that are around you – new ways of working, new ways of thinking transforming your mindset, then you’ll still be in the 20th century.”
What are the kinds of people and talent we are going to need? “More important than having skillsets is mindset, Walsh advised. The most valuable people are those who can make good decisions and quickly embrace changes in business models, competitors, and technology. Seek out agile thinkers who are energized by unknowns.”
How do we really drive productivity? “We have to design workplaces where our best people feel comfortable collaborating, solving problems, and getting to the core of driving value from their role. How do you get the best value out of your people in the way they collaborate and solve problems together?”
How do we manage the transformation process? Corporate finance and shared services leaders “are at the center of some of the most fascinating data in your organization – all of expenses, procurement information. You see it all,” Walsh said. “That data tells a story, but you first have to find a way to bring it to life.... Tap into the power of data to drive and inspire change.”
How does the nature of our work change? As technology and automation transform the work that you do, what is the best use of your time? What is the future of your role? How can you be more strategic? In almost every profession, we’ll be faced by this moment of truth. The future needs people. It needs leaders. But it really needs algorithmic leaders. Those are people who have made that transition of thriving in a new world of data.” According to Walsh, you will need two key skills:
A deep understanding of human complexity. “Only human beings really understand the context of why we do things the way we do and what it takes to motivate people and change behavior and empathize. The machine intelligence might say this exception or expense report doesn’t look right, but it takes people to take a look at it and say, ‘No, that’s OK or, actually, there is a problem.’”
A flair for computational thinking. “In the next few years, the way you approach problems and make decisions has to be informed by real-time data and the power of algorithms. Because if you don’t, others will be able to tap into that, to their advantage.”
But don’t forget to pick the right moral compass. “The most important debate that you will have as leaders is how we should use data responsibly. It’s not about obeying the law. Following regulations will always land you into trouble because regulators will always be behind the court of public opinion. What you don’t want to do is break the trust of your employees, your partners, and your customers. The only way to avoid that is by spending time today thinking about the ethical issues of the technologies and the way you use data,” Walsh said.
Let data lead you on a path of reinvention. “The real question is not whether we can be smarter or faster than machines. The real question is what is being smart today really mean? To be a leader in this new age of AI requires some fresh ways of thinking. Let data lead you and your team on a path of reinvention.
Focus on what matters. “Spend some time thinking about with these new technologies, how should you spend your time? What are the decisions you can’t automate that really matter? How do you think about risk more strategically in the 21st century? In the next five years, what are the kinds of roles or activities that AI, algorithms or automation might take over in your team? But what do you think are going to be the human capabilities that will be in even more demand?”
Think big. Think new. Think quick. “The future is much bigger than just new technology. The future is about understanding human potential. I’ve come to the realization is that the future is not an upgrade on the present. It’s an invitation for all of us to think in entirely new way,” Walsh said.
“There’s no doubt that we’re living today in a time of revolution. But when you look at the great people who brought us here – Tesla, Turing, DaVinci – I think what we ultimately remember about these people is not because of their contributions to science – we remember them because they had the courage to ask dangerous questions about the world around them. You have that power, too. So please do that – Think big. Think New. But most importantly, think quick. Because there’s one thing I can tell you with one degree of certainty: The future is now.”
Mike Walsh is a frequent commentator for publications like The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He is the author of Futuretainment and The Dictionary of Dangerous Ideas, and the forthcoming book, The Algorithmic Leader. Walsh hosts the technology podcast, Between Worlds. As CEO of Tomorrow, a global consultancy, he advises leaders on how to thrive in an era of disruptive technological change.