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Opinion Editorials

Is artificial intelligence (AI) going too far, moving too quickly?

(EDITORIAL) Ironically, the answer to the question, “Will Skynet kill us all?” lies not in the eternal, shiny and chrome future, but in history. Is AI about to blow up in our faces?

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Tech is on the up and up

It feels almost redundant to say we live in an age of unprecedented technological growth. I mean just look at this stuff – a computer crafted an actual organism, a cell phone as a microscope, a robot that can run and be used by the military, a helium-filled 6TB hard drive, open-source industrial machines, and a syringe with tiny sponges that can seal a gunshot wound in seconds.

That’s just since 2010 – throughout the world, and not just the privileged world, tech has been in a state of exponential improvement for generations. Some people are pretty concerned about that.

But there are concerns

I don’t blame them. Neither does Dr. Guru Banavar, Chief Science Officer for Cognitive Computing at IBM who recently wrote on the subject. “The most urgent work is to recognize and minimize bias. Bias could be introduced into an AI system through the training data or the algorithms,” he notes.

He’s the head of cognitive computing at IBM, so he’s kind of got a dog in this hunt. Some other really smart people – Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, for example, three dudes to whom it often pays to listen – are saying the opposite.

*Deep breath*

They’re wrong.

*Pause*

OK, I don’t hear Microsoft office drones or Musk-branded actual drones coming to get me. But maybe they just blue-screened and need a reboot before they march down my street like Cybermen and arrest me for heresy, so let’s get serious.

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Coal, steel, and concrete

Ironically, the answer to the question, “Will Skynet kill us all?” lies not in the eternal, shiny and chrome future, but in history. When I said tech has been exponentially improving for generations, it wasn’t hyperbole. It was math. Human life has changed more in the last 300 years than in the twenty thousand beforehand, when we figured out putting seeds in the ground makes them do stuff. The Industrial Revolution never really ended. The combination of Newton’s rigor and Watt’s engineering that remade the mostly agrarian world with coal and steel and concrete, is still remaking the world, still mostly with coal and steel and concrete.

More importantly, a chilling amount of recent history has been about managing, and too often failing to manage, the consequences of those changes, whether economic, environmental, or terribly human.

Worse before it gets better

AI is going to be another big change. Industrial Revolution big? Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not an oracle. But I’m putting my money behind Dr. Banavar rather than the Three Wise Geeks, because this time we have an unprecedented advantage: 300 years of our ancestors screwing up. London had two million people in it before it had sewers. That led directly, and unsurprisingly, to the germ theory of disease, which in turn led to not dying of tooth decay. I am in favor of not dying of tooth decay.

The only reason AI is a thing is because the great pre-AI paradigm shift was an immeasurably vast increase in the availability of data. That means that this time, we have a chance of seeing the consequences coming. Thanks both to pro-AI scholars like Dr. Banavar and AI skeptics like Dr. Hawking, the implementation of AI could be something new: a conscious revolution.

After all, we were afraid of this change decades before it came.

Alan Turing, founding father of computer science took on the philosophical tangles of AI all of two years after the first stored-program computer was created, and  Hubert Dreyfus – not to mention HAL and Superman – addressed the fears and failures of artificial intelligence when it was still a tall ask to get a computer in one room.

Or will we triumph?

When Thomas Newcomen set his piston bouncing, he had no idea he’d started the Industrial Revolution. He was just trying to dry out a mine. There wasn’t an angel on his shoulder whispering “Hey, before you turn on your engine, have you considered it might cause a cholera outbreak in London and the subsequent founding of epidemiology?

We’ve got the angel, in the form of a wealth of opinions on what machine learning should and should not do. We’ve traced the lines of dominoes back from the triumphs and tragedies of world history. AI represents a chance at Revolution Mark 2, change guided from “go” by human interests.

Though who knows? Maybe I’m with the Cybermen.

#AI

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Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

Opinion Editorials

What Swedish Death Cleaning your office looks like

(PRODUCTIVITY) If you need any motivation to clear the clutter check out dostadning, aka Swedish Death Cleaning. It won’t kill you but it’ll make you feel super metal while you clean.

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You’ve probably heard of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” as one of many titles focused on keeping your life organized and stress free. However, I bet you’ve never heard of dostadning, or, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.”

Alarmed yet? Don’t be; while it’s exactly as morbid as it sounds, it’s not as morose as you would think.

Dostadning, sometimes called “death cleaning” is a Swedish term referring to a process of permanent cleaning conducted throughout your Golden Girl years, usually starting around age 50. The goal of the process is to alleviate the burden of tidying up from your surviving family once you pass away.

It is currently having a day in the sun thanks to Margareta Magnusson, who is publishing a book on this topic.

The process is rooted in common de-cluttering mantras; only hold onto things that you actually use and actually bring you joy. Nothing you can’t find in your other “simplify your life” bestsellers. However, the spectre of the end of life does hang over the process, and that results in a few unique elements.

First of all, talk of death cleaning is highly encouraged amongst family and friends. Not only does this create accountability, but it also reduces the stigma around the process of passing on.

There’s also the idea of giving things you don’t want away as gifts to friends. It’s a way of creating happy memories for others, little pieces of yourself that can stick around.

In addition to creating these new memories, dostadning encourages personal reflections on your old memories. Clearing out clutter means making more space in your life for things that truly matter; anything negative or neutral gets the metaphorical boot.

That simplicity and self-reflection is a form of self-care, bolstered by the fact that, post-cleaning, you are supposed to treat yourself to something you like.

Because of the focus on long-term organization, dostadning stands out as a more long-term solution, as opposed to the temporary fix of “tidying up.” No matter where you are in life, it’s important to remember to make time to address the cause of clutter, rather than addressing clutter as a symptom that needs a band-aid.

Perhaps you could dostadn your desk? You’ve probably got a few receipts from lunch last month you don’t need anymore or maybe you’re a water bottle collector — you know the ones that get a water bottle and don’t finish it but then get a new one anyways and then somehow wind up with a collection of bottles on and around your desk? Maybe you’ve kept every single stapler you’ve ever been given but let’s be real, do you need 5 staplers?

Maybe your clutter isn’t on your desk, but it’s in your drawers. Or maybe, just maybe it’s in the break room. Wherever your clutter lie beginning to simplify and purge things will make you (and your co-workers) happy.

By focusing on changing the way you organize things as a whole, you may find your efforts to reap longer-lasting returns.

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Opinion Editorials

Disrupting the idea that tech is the disrupter of modern business

(OPINION EDITORIAL) In a world of streaming, apps and have-it-now, it is easy to think of technology as a disrupter. But is that the issue or the symptom of a bigger issue?

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Customers matter

Amazon didn’t kill the retail industry, they did it to themselves with bad customer service. Netflix did not kill Blockbuster, they did it to themselves with ridiculous late fees. Uber did not kill the taxi business, they did it to themselves by limiting the number of taxis and with fare control. Apple did not kill the music industry, they did it to themselves by forcing people to buy full-length albums. AirBNB did not kill the hotel industry, they did it to themselves by limited availability and pricing options. Technology by itself is not the real disrupter.

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Being non-customer-centric is the biggest threat to any business. Not my words, they’re rad. That’s Davis Masten, making an elegant and effective argument for the disruption business model. Let’s get less concise.

User experience

Mr. Masten absolutely isn’t wrong. Every success story he lists got its customers based on a smooth, convenient user experience, and I’ll wager everybody reading this has a hilarious horror story about at least one of the failures.

He does undersell tech a bit. The music industry didn’t force people to buy full albums. You could buy all the singles you wanted. They were just a pain in the posterior to sort and store. Then, iTunes. If AirBNB is killing hotels it’s doing it darn slowly (which I guess might be worse?) and Netflix coexisted with Blockbuster until the former went streaming.

But that’s a quibble. Even in cases where the new model didn’t disrupt the old one until certain tech was in place, that tech was invariably in the service of a convenient, cost-effective user experience. That’s Mr. Masten’s point. Whoever wins at that, wins. Truth.

The question I really want to address: what then?

What then?

That’s a question the disruption business model has a bad habit of not answering. Well, I mean, there’s the Uber answer, the Uber answer being “behave contemptibly for years on end until your own shareholders kick you out despite you making them money.” Never give the Uber answer.

It is not a good answer.

For folks looking to be Travis Kalanick in 2013 without being Travis Kalanick in 2017, a level of responsibility is called for. As Mr. Masten points out, “disruption” usually means a smoother, simpler user experience beating the tar out of an older, clunkier one. That’s great!

It also comes with collateral damage.

Terms of employment

The ride-sharing model – and this is everybody, I’m not just picking on Uber – depends on drivers being legally self-employed. AirBNB depends on hosts not having to meet hotel regulations, and guests not expecting them. Put differently, if Uber and Lyft had to pay a living wage and offer benefits, or AirBNB hosts had to meet hotel cleanliness standards out of pocket, those services would keel over and die in a week.

That cash-in-hand approach absolutely makes things simpler for the company and the customer.

To be especially callous, it may also encourage a better user experience because workers are broke and terrified of losing their jobs, unlike, for instance, unionized cab drivers.

It’s also precarious in the extreme, and not just for employees. The Uber/Netflix model is a confluence of easy user experience and the technology that empowers it. That being the case, there will be a new “disruption” every time the tech gets measurably better. Conservatively, we’re ten years out from self-driving cars. Executives at Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Grubhub and every other “disrupter” that uses vehicles – so, all of them – would probably like that to be five years. Their drivers probably feel otherwise.

That’s the Uber error (I have now resumed picking on Uber).

They missed that “customer-centric” means more than “convenient.”

It also means “up to the customer’s standards of good business.” They couldn’t manage that even when it came to their own internal culture, and they paid for it with a public scandal, a non-negligible market segment who refuse to use their brand on principle, and “Uber, but for…” becoming a punchline.

Sustainability of disruption

The disruption model, which was synonymous with fast profits from streamlined processes, is rapidly becoming synonymous with fast failure, toxic corporate culture and horror stories of low pay and poor treatment of customers and employees alike. For those of us ancient enough to remember it recalls the change in public perception of the term “dot-com,” and seriously, short of literal Internet access, anything affiliating your business with the dot-com bubble is not your friend.

That’s still reversible, and Mr. Masten provides a superb starting point.

“Disruptive” companies generally do their disrupting by streamlining user interaction, and whether you’re writing an app or running a bank, user interaction is the most important thing.

Customer-centric

But user interaction isn’t limited to purchasing your service, and Econ 101 notwithstanding, customers buy based on more than who offers most for cheapest. In the frighteningly transparent 21st century, being customer-centric means addressing human values along with economic ones, guaranteeing that when you profit, so do your customers and employees. If your standards don’t stand up to the people who buy what you’re selling, you will not be selling it long.

That’s what “customer-centric” means. You can’t disrupt forever. Eventually, you have to build.

#Disrupters

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Opinion Editorials

How to impress people by being stupid (and when not to)

(EDITORIAL) Did you know that admitting you don’t know something can be a respectable business move? But in other situations, you better avoid it.

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You want to impress people, right?

My first job was at my aunt and uncle’s children’s bookstore, long before it was legal for me to work. My aunt drilled into me the best customer service tips I’ve received in my life. By age 13, I could answer the phone like a pro, help an aimless mother compile a bevy of meaningful gifts based on her child’s age, I could operate a register, and knew when to be patient, when to rush, when to jump, and when to sit still.

If I didn’t know the answer to any of her questions or the questions of a customer, “I don’t know” was never an acceptable response. “I don’t know, but I will find out for you right now” sufficed, but “I don’t know” was deemed ignorant, rude, and in some cases, disrespectful.

42Floors.com Founder, Jason Freedman has waxed poetic about the power of the phrase “I don’t know,” noting that when you use the phrase, even if you think you look stupid, it validates everything else you’ve said as honest rather than salesy bullshit, and rather than your just nodding your head in agreement with everything, even when you’re lost. Go read it so the rest of this editorial makes sense…

Contrasting my experience with the phrase with Freedman’s has had my mind in some knots today as I’ve sorted out why I agree with both my aunt and Freedman.

I realized that there is context in which using the phrase is actually appropriate, and advantageous, because looking stupid can actually lend credence to your words, but at some times, it is a lazy response to a request.

So which is better?

So, which is it? Use the phrase liberally, add “but I’ll find out,” or strike it from your vocabulary?

When speaking to a boss or someone that is requesting something from you, take my aunt’s advice and admit that you don’t know but that you will immediately learn the answer. If you are pitching to investors or talking to potential hires or partners, use it liberally to strengthen your other answers. You get the picture.

Freedman is right – there is value in using the phrase, but in some situations, there is value in adding the followup that you’ll find out immediately what the answer is. Both scenarios may make you feel stupid, but they both have a tremendous amount of value and are instant trust builders.

This editorial was originally published in 2014.

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