Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Starting at the Finish Line

Starting at the finish line
Every futurist I know seems to be emphasizing that the speed of change is accelerating.  Are you hearing the same thing?  Have you ever pondered why that might be the case?  There are many reasons given including the famous phrase by Marc Andreessen, "Software is eating the world," so in this article we will touch on a few additional ones.

Let's start by considering a line of automated robots building vehicles on an assembly line.  If the manufacturer needs to scale up and produce more vehicles they simply deploy more robots with all necessary best practices and instructions pre-loaded.  There is no long recruitment, training, experience and probation period required. The robots are optimized on day one.  This example represents an ability to introduce change much faster than in the past as digital automation provides far more agility.

Another reason change can be accelerated is that once institutional knowledge is captured, codified and algorithms developed there are near-zero costs to duplicating and distributing them anywhere around the world.  Instantly best practices from Europe or Asia can be uploaded to systems anywhere and the benefits of the digitized knowledge utilized.  There is no need to start from the beginning again in a different location - when you can simply start at the finish line.  

Another change accelerator is demonstrated by a physics law called entropy that says things will always move in the direction of relative order to relative chaos.  The brilliant author Steven Pinker describes it this way, “If you walk away from a sandcastle, it won’t be there tomorrow, because as the wind, waves, seagulls, and small children push the grains of sand around, they’re more likely to arrange them into one of the vast number of configurations that don’t look like a castle...”  It's hard to build things that last.

The maintenance of order takes a lot of energy and investment as Pamela Ayuso describes in her compelling article, The Role of Entropy in Business.  "Things tend to become naturally disorganized unless someone/something is putting them back in order. Whether it is the maintenance of our car or cleaning our house, there is always something that needs to be organized again."  

If you have a high performing, highly trained team, producing high quality results, then you know how hard it is to maintain that level over time as people come and go and processes and markets change.  A moment's distraction can bring the entire house of cards down.  How much time, effort and expense do businesses spend just trying to maintain a consistently high level of production?  Digitized systems, on the other hand, simply follow their algorithms and don't require the constant expense and effort to keep them on track.  Without the need to constantly fight against entropy, businesses can more effectively focus on productive change - another reason change can be accelerated.

Unlike digital systems, when we have children there is no efficient means to upload all of our education, earned knowledge and life experiences into their brains.  We have a laborious and expensive process of starting from zero and adding layers of information over the course of a lifetime.  AI and automated systems, however, can start on day one with all the required information pre-loaded.  Information that was potentially captured over centuries of time can now be uploaded in seconds.  A capability that can massively accelerate the speed of change inside a business.

What an advantage it would be to start our professional careers with all of the accumulated knowledge of our field of study already in our brains!  We could then dedicate our lives to advancing knowledge rather than playing catch up!   That is what is happening with cognitive systems and autonomous self-driving vehicles today.  On the very first day that an autonomous self-driving car rolls off the production line, it will have the accumulated knowledge and best practices derived from all the autonomous vehicles before them and their millions of miles driving through every conceivable and recorded scenario.  Every new vehicle will start with full knowledge on day one.

We humans, however, face challenges with our thinking and memory limitations.  Our brains are impacted by many things including our age, health, sleep, stress and emotional well-being.  Our brains are also not very dependable.  It is well known that multiple witnesses to an accident often all remember important events and details differently.  

Our points of view can also be greatly impacted by the myths and stories we grow up with, paradigms of thought that we are taught and the religious, cultural, political and societal mental frameworks we are provided with by our families, teachers and mentors.  All of these different variables influence our ability to capture, analyze, process and retain information effectively.  With digital cognitive systems, it is possible to avoid many of these challenges and to work at an optimized level 24x7x365, and to retain all knowledge permanently without degradation.  What an amazing advantage and innovation!

So back to our original question.  Why is change accelerating?  Once knowledge is extracted from human brains and digitized, it is no longer dependent on the aging, sleepy, emotional, flesh and blood brain to learn and progress.  Knowledge can be gained and developed while humans sleep, not to mention that once digital cognitive systems are involved - so is Moore's Law.  

At some point in the not too distant future there will be a historic transition.  We humans will stop being the primary source of both questions and answers, and will focus on what we do best - asking questions.  

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Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.