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Are we living in the matrix ?

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Are we already living in the matrix ? That question may seem odd to most of you. Not to some unidentified silicon valley billionaires who are secretly funding scientists to find a way to escape the matrix.
I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom and algorithms for a few months now, and would like to share some of my thoughts with you.

Background : what was the matrix about ?

Let’s remember what the Matrix movie was all about. Let’s head to Wikipedia for a short synopsis :

“The Matrix is a 1999 science fiction film written and directed by The Wachowskis […] It depicts a dystopian future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality called “the Matrix”, created by sentient machines to subdue the human population, while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source.”

Is Artificial Intelligence enslaving or liberating us ?

In my current role of Big Data manager for a public company, I’m very much concerned about the value users get from technology, especially from computer programs that are increasingly getting intelligent : algorithms.
I think there are two types of algorithms nowadays. Algorithms that harm us and others that empower us. I’ve been giving dozens of speeches in the last 2 years that have helped me shape my vision.

Algorithms which harm us

Most recommendation algorithms for instance are taking some type of value away. Netflix’s recommendation algorithm is a particularly good example. Neil Hunt, Netflix’s CPO recognized it at the RecSys 2014 conference when he famously said Netflix’s algorithms couldn’t make the difference between an enriched life and addiction. An addiction harms.
The same applies to algorithms which trap us in a filter bubble. Or companies (like Google and Facebook) that trap us in an ecosystem (a giant bubble around all our behaviors : driving, buying, getting informed, playing, …). There are countless examples of weapons of math destruction as Cathy O’Neil called them (see for instance Evan Estola’s presentation at RecSys 2016 conference).

Algorithms which empower us

In contrast, artificial intelligence can also be used for the greater good. And this will most likely change dramatically the way we live and work in the near future.
Think for instance of algorithms used in the medicine sector. Some AI startups (I know one of them) are currently working on NLP and other types of algorithms to analyze patients’ files and detect new correlations between symptoms and drugs used. The perspective is just amazing. In a few years computers will be able to propose the best unique combination of drugs for any disease, outperforming the best physicians’ diagnoses.
What Coursera is working on is also very inspiring. The question engineers are asking themselves is how to broaden people’s competencies by proposing them courses to extend their skills and enlarge their scope. Although there is a commercial vision behind (sell more online courses) I like the strategic vision. Coursera has understood that the world is changing so quickly that competences must adjust regularly and possibly embrace different fields. In the future, getting too specialized may actually hurt your career. Yet, leaving his zone of comfort to remain “employable” is difficult.

What is left for Humans ?

That’s the most important of all. Progress and scientific advances are necessary to fix all the problems we have created. Artificial intelligence and in particular algorithms will deeply change our relation to work, making a large part of the population redundant and not contributive to the latest evolution of society.
My vision of humanity is the following. I think algorithmic advances will liberate us from tasks that we underperformed until now. Progresses in this field will first appear as commercial applications before public organizations harness it for the Greater Good. The time and efforts saved in the replacement of human labor by algorithms will allow to focus future efforts on solving problems that are too complicated for algorithms. Don’t forget that algorithms predict the future based on the past. This is a serious limitation. Algorithms, unlike the human brain, can’t create disruption. They can only follow established norms and remain within a framework that has been imposed by programmers.

Creativity will be in future leaders’ DNA

This being said, I think that the development of cognitive machines will force us to rethink our roles. I’m also convinced that the DNA of leadership will be deeply changed in the coming decade, giving power to those with extreme creativity. Besides managerial competences (which can be acquired at school), creativity and curiosity will be key skills to remain employable. Those skills will be highly sought after because ordinary people will be overwhelmed by information and unable to maintain a sufficient level of curiosity and creativity. Those able to think broadly, who will gather experience in a broad range of industries, will be tomorrow’s champions.

Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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