Technology, ideas and thriving in a new world

AI predicts the inexplicable to the human mind, argues technologist Dr David Weinberger. Following his book launch and live debate on how technology impacts bias, Profusion’s Natalie Cooper reports. 

Business culture has evolved from the days where we anticipated what customers would want. Now, with AI and machine learning, the commercial world is no longer focussed on limitations. The rise of the internet and technology has opened up a space for possibilities and outcomes that us humans could never predict for ourselves.

This was the message conveyed by speaker Dr David Weinberger at Harvard Business Review’s HBR Live: Everyday Chaos, in May. At the event, hosted in London by Herman Miller, the technologist and author emphasised some key points from his latest book: Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility.

“AI predicts the unexplainable,” he says. “Back in the 1990s, people were complaining that the internet was creating ‘information overload’. My perception today is: I don’t hear these comments anymore. Instead I hear the desire for more data.”

He argues a ‘cultural flip’ has happened without us even noticing it. However he also adds that there’s no actual evidence to back this up.

Let’s take a look at this extract from Everyday Chaos

“We are at the beginning of a great leap forward in our powers of understanding and managing the future: rather than always having to wrestle our world down to a size we can predict, control, and feel comfortable with, we are starting to build strategies that our world’s complexity into account.

“We are taking this leap because these strategies are already enabling us to be more efficient and effective, in touch with more people and ideas, more creative, and more joyful. It is already re-contextualising many of our most basic ideas and our most deeply accustomed practices in our business and personal lives. It is reverberating through every reach of our culture.

 “The scale and connectedness of machine learning and the internet result in their complexity. The connections among the huge number of pieces can sometimes lead to chains of events that end up wildly far from where they started. Tiny differences can cause these systems to take unexpectedly sharp turns.

 “We don’t use these technologies because they are huge, connected, and complex. We use them because they work. Our success with these technologies – rather than the technologies themselves – is showing us the world as more complex and chaotic than we thought, which, in turn, is encouraging us to explore new approaches and strategies, challenging our assumptions about the nature and importance of understanding and explanations, and ultimately leading us to a new sense of how things happen.

 “We are transitioning to a new type of working model, one that does not require knowing how a system works and that does not require simplifying it, at least not to the degree we have in the past. This makes the rise of machine learning one of the most significant disruptions in our history.”

Giving customers what they want, not what we anticipate

He cites Dropbox as an example of how it launched its business in 2008 with ‘minimal viable product’ (MVP) – a term coined by Frank Robinson, co-founder of product development consultancy SyncDev.

Dropbox envisaged people would access and manage their files in the cloud from multiple machines. However it decided to roll out features incrementally, based on what users actually wanted – publicly shareable files, automatic backups, collaborative editing and more. Weinberger explains that Dropbox has continued to add major features as it learned from customers what they would actually use.

“It is hard for even the most diligent of companies to anticipate customer needs because customers don’t know what they want. That’s not because we customers are dumb. It’s because products are complex, and how they best fit into our complex workflows and lives can only be discovered by actually using them. And then those usages can give rise to new needs and new ideas.”

He asks the question: ‘Why anticipate when you can launch, learn and iterate?’ To conclude, he argues that:

“Every time we touch the net, we relearn the same lesson: unanticipation creates possibilities. It means we no longer need to pay the heavy price of wasted resources or missed opportunities that come from over-, under-, or mispreparing. More importantly, instead of limiting the value of what we build by anticipating and preparing for the few narrowed-down possibilities that we could forsee, we are now building to meet needs that a connected world of users might invent for one another.

“Being able to make more of a product than we anticipated lets the world show itself to us in a new light. ‘This is for that’ becomes a needlessly limited way of thinking. Yes this was intended for that that, but it could be for this, for that, or for something no one has thought of yet. And if we’re learning that often there are serious benefits to holding off on locking things into their anticipated uses, then how things interact is also freer, more possible, and more complex than we’d thought.”

 

Bio: Dr David Weinberger PhD

David Weinberger is a thought leader on the internet’s effect on our lives, businesses and ideas.

He has contributed through books that explore the meaning of our new technology, and as a writer for publications including WiredScientific American and Harvard Business Review.

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Natalie Cooper

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