If you write algorithms, you are in the business of creating formulas that enable computers to perform tasks, in some cases tasks that otherwise would be done by humans. Initially your goal is to replicate human processes so things can be done quicker or more effortlessly, or in the case of business, less expensively. Ultimately your goal is to create technology that outperforms human beings.
Before you scoff at that notion think of this common example. Pretty much all of us now carry navigation systems around with us. I have gotten in the habit, when I am going somewhere that I don’t know how to get to, of getting in my car, plugging the address into my phone and following the verbal directions that I play through the car radio system.
Before GPS, how did I do this? Maybe I called someone who knew how to get there and wrote down the directions they gave me. Or I could have acquired a map, looked over the alternatives, and planned the best route. In either case, the computer, in this case taking the form of my smart phone, is quicker, more up to date, easier and usually less prone to error. In a word, smarter.
Granted these are simple decisions, but the computer is making decisions for us. And the decisions are being made based upon data that is stored in the devices memory, data about maps and routes, and about things like speed limits and traffic lights, one-way streets, traffic and construction. That’s not stuff that’s stored in our human memory or that can easily be accumulated in a timely manner by an individual who just wants to find his way to the place he wants to go.
Now think about all the data that starts to be accumulated when we are wearing devices, when there are devices embedded in numerous things in our homes, sensors in stores, on utility poles and in our vehicles. Devices everywhere, accumulating data about everything.
With this army of computers and massive stockpile of data, what kinds of decisions can computers make? Already computers are being used to read scripts for Hollywood movies to determine which ones to pursue. Will our smartphone be able to tell you which of your clothes you should wear that would give you the best chance of a successful job interview?
There are even some inroads in replacing knowledge workers. Computers are already being used to write news. There are companies such as Narrative Science that have built apps that can take a company financial statement or a baseball box score and write a story. It won’t be brilliant prose, it won’t be insightful, but it will likely be factual and certainly more readable than the source data it was derived from.
This may be attractive to companies like Reuters or Dow Jones who are in the business of trying to get relevant market moving information, such as company financial results, to their Wall Street clients as fast as possible. But even that may be too late because the trading outfits who would buy this information are using algorithms to take the same data and convert it into trades, pretty much cutting out the whole layer of middlemen that includes journalists, analysts and traders.
This has interesting implications for business management. I’ve come across corporate CEO’s who are in the position they are in because they can talk the talk. But they may not nearly be as good at making the decisions they need to make to run a company. How they must welcome data-driven decision making. Of course if a business can be run on decisions made by an automated analysis of the available data, there’s lots of less expensive folks sitting in the cubes who could make the same decisions as the CEO.
Computer scientists are focused on how they can put together sets of data that take into consideration not just the environment, but the social setting, behavioral history and a person’s interests to make day to day life decisions. They call this “contextual computing.”
Does human intelligence then lose its value? Is this the end of the dreaded but understandable “human error?” Theoretically we all would make the same decisions when faced with the same problems and having the same set of data. Or does decision-making ability in our society begin to reflect income inequality? Those with the most money to have access to the best information gathering and processing systems on a personal level would then make the best decisions.
If all that isn’t jarring enough there are also some characters knows as neuroscientists who are working on ways to use machines to read people’s minds. That could produce another pretty interesting set of data to guide not just your decision making but your personal behavior. We’ve seen something like that before…in science fiction movies.
Throughout my career I’ve been someone who always focused on intuition, experience, and judgement based on human knowledge. I feel I may be part of a vanishing breed.