Artificial Intelligence or Natural Stupidity

My first foray into artificial intelligence was in the early nineties during my internship in one of the national labs. Computer was still new for me and my first and foremost goal was to learn programming. When I was asked to do a bunch of numerical methods and mathematical analysis in a large mainframe computer sitting in Arctic-like conditions – it was a a bummer to begin with. Not until the second week did I got my first taste of doing something that completely blew my mind, and changed my outlook on what I should be doing going forward. Well, computers have a different way to solve continuous functions, that I appreciated.  But then there was also pattern recognition. Applying advanced techniques to think about new ways to approximate polygons to have a much compressed data set. Who knew storage and connectivity costs would go down. This required serious thought. But after 3 months, I was able to produce something which my adviser was able to put in some good use, including a paper in his own right. But I continued reading – well thats all I could do on my own – fuzzy logic, neural networks – indeed, it was the buzz in the 90s. But then it all faded away … until recently.

While reading Michael Lewis’ fascinating book – “The Undoing Project, I came across Amos Tversky’s rather striking and humorous anecdote. He once was asked about what he was doing about artificial intelligence and his response was that he spent more time thinking about people showing natural stupidity.  This was a gem that can’t be left unused.  I have to admit that after spending almost 20 years in real life and more recently in the world of business management, dealing with natural stupidity presents lots of opportunities – as low hanging fruit that the use of artificial still seems rather far off, somewhat like why need an elephant gun for a swarm of mosquitoes, if there is any such thing.

But there might something else at play. It may be that to overcome natural stupidity – artificial intelligence might be quite effective. For the last few years we have been hearing buzz words like “big data” and that analytics will change everything for good – not the least of which is making lots of money for everyone in the business – if only if – we knew what to do with it. Well, artificial intelligence may have an answer. It might be able to draw associations and help guide the stupid human to show how the data may be useful. In particular, I am intrigued by the possibilities of unsupervised learning and techniques like Principal Component Analysis. Some parenting to ensure that the learning is useful will be needed but other than not much. I am excited and my spirits from my undergrad days are rekindled.

So looks like the logical path forward to the promised land of untapping this value maybe a little bit more Rousseau than Voltaire. What do we need? Give the tools for people to play with the data. Give them the time to play and learn. The art of playing and learning – the way I seen my 3 year old learn these days. Make, break, tinker and you will have something useful. All it takes are the tools and an open mind. But in the current business environment – which are hardwired to deadlines, meetings, and meeting targets, those are exactly the attributes that are in short supply. So I wonder how this will move forward. Will the industry make such huge bets unless we change on how we innovate and expand, extend, and enhance our ways. That has to be seen. Will our natural stupidity let us change our behaviors or hinder from it. That toorRemains to be seen. I will keep pondering about it.