How to put AI into cognitive perspective


Among the big topics that will dominate the news in 2017, a prominent one will undoubtedly be artificial intelligence or AI.

It’s a huge topic, one that gathered momentum in 2016 to grab our attention and showcase both opportunity and risk with news and opinion often focused on a dystopian future that has plans to eliminate jobs currently done by human beings and replace them with robots. (Or maybe not.)

Wherever you look, there’s so much differing opinion on the impact of AI and automation on people and jobs that, at times, it’s hard to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

While a great deal of media coverage and social commentary and opinion has been on the consumer focus of AI – just look at what was on show at the US Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month – it’s in the workplace arena where the disruptive impact will likely be most felt most quickly.

I use the word ‘workplace’ in the broadest sense possible, where the workplace is no longer just somewhere you travel to every weekday and return home from every evening (if you have such a journey, that journey is also your workplace).

So how do we, as business communicators and agents of change, make sense of and prepare for the changes already happening in the workplace that will impact every one of us in one way or another before this decade is out?

How do we help raise awareness about and understanding of the opportunity and risk AI presents us with?

Augmenting Intelligence

It starts with a clear view towards understanding what AI actually is. A view that helps us see where AI fits into our workplace and our vision. It requires us to look beyond the seemingly obvious, and see what’s important to us.

Take the acronym ‘AI.’ It’s described everywhere you look as meaning ‘artificial  intelligence.’ But look beyond the obvious and you can see that AI is far better described as ‘augmented intelligence.’

Consider this clearer definition of AI as not being about machines, algorithms or computer processing power.

Instead, think of it first and foremost as providing people with knowledge and insights that enable them to work more effectively or efficiently; to focus on achieving an outcome and not the task list; to leave the mundane to a tech tool that excels at the mundane; to amplify your cognitive prowess by leveraging (augmenting) the intelligence you have with the help of the machines, algorithms and computer processing power I mentioned earlier.

Last November, I spoke at an IABC UK event on getting the most out of data analytics where I first articulated the concept of augmented intelligence.

Here’s how I defined the new AI:

  • Making use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and related technologies to augment your own native, human, intelligence.
  • In data analysis, augmented intelligence frees you from performing the basic but essential analytical tasks on increasingly huge data sets – a perfectly-suited task for automation.
  • This enables you to concentrate on tasks that are perfectly suited to people: things like extracting valuable, actionable, insights from the analysis of myriad, increasing, amounts of unstructured data.

Admittedly, this is narrowly focused on data and data analytics in a specific context. Yet I believe it’s a definition and concept that’s portable and will apply to the broader topic under discussion here.

In any case, given the audience to whom I directed my message – organizational communicators – last November, it’s a valid one in my view, at the heart of what we need to consider as communicators (and agents of change).

But we also need to consider this piece of the jigsaw in the bigger-picture view of the complete puzzle we need to complete. That puzzle embraces wholesale changes we are facing – from talk of robots taking our jobs as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, to the new required skills we need to identify, to the costs of change we must bear.

And, undoubtedly, there will be costs especially in the social sense. It’s a subject I have passionate views on, some of which I spoke of in an interview with Chip Griffin last July. For example:

[…] I believe very clearly that there would be a social cost and we have to plan for that in organizations, and figure out, you know, “What do we do if we decide to go down this route? That brings in this technology that means that we can have a computer algorithm performing the tasks that we have 10 people doing before, what happens to those 10 people? How do we evolve their roles to take advantage of this?” These are huge challenges for the HR folks in every organization.

Not only HR.

Leadership Moves

The puzzle I spoke of just now is a very big one. So how do we make sense of it?

I point you to a significant discussion on the real impact of artificial intelligence that took place at the World Economic Forum 2017 annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

A panel comprising Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM (the company I work for); Joichi Ito, Director Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Ron Gutman, Founder and CEO, HealthTap; and Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft Corporation, discussed some big issues surrounding AI.

Strategic organizational change is enabled at the top level. The near one-hour discussion, moderated by Robert F. Smith, Chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners, is well worth your time; watch it here in the video embed below:

So let me circle back to ground level and our focus as business communicators.

AI, in both meanings, is a component that enables a cognitive business (that’s another big topic that deserves a separate article; in the meantime, think of cognitive PR).

It seems to me to be quite clear what our enabling-task is right now. Let’s do what we’re very good at.

Get Ready…

  • More than ever, data and analytics are central to the success of any business function or industry
    – enabling competitive differentiation, operational effectiveness and early-mover advantage that are essential in the cognitive business era
  • Cognitive businesses will be the innovators, the market makers, the leaders
    – the rate of innovation is accelerating, requiring rapid understanding of opportunity, and agility (and ability) to execute
  • As communicators, we must fully understand the evolving landscape and how to explain our differentiated position in it to our leaders, colleagues and customers
    – we become the non-technical subject-matter experts

The time to act is right now.

Incidentally, I first heard the term ‘augmented intelligence’ last summer in a presentation by Ginni Rometty. It’s resonated ever since.

Is this how you see it? You may have a different perspective. If so, I’d love to know what you think. Share your point of view here or via your preferred social network.

Additional reading:

(The picture at top is of the Cognitive Marchesa dress, an AI collaboration between high-fashion designers Marchesa and IBM Watson.)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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