Epistemology and the Earth Apple

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to ignore the common title tropes of the blogosphere. If I were in the business of attracting as many page views as possible, I’d title this post something like “The 3 Secrets of Fabulous People”.  But I write for smart, witty (and already fabulous) people like you!  So what gives with the title?

Behraim’s Earth Apple

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with what we know, the nature of human knowledge, and what is knowable (you know?). It challenges our beliefs. How can you be sure that is true? Does our knowledge truly represent reality?

We live in an age where technical and medical leaps forward convince us that we know a lot. We carry a subtle sense of superiority when we think about the rubes from centuries past who thought leeches were an innovative form of medical treatment. Perhaps even those people thought themselves superior to the generations before them who hadn’t yet discovered “leeches 2.0”.

The idea of epistemology has been in my mind after listening to this a16z podcast on the advances in mapping technology. I’ve always had a love of maps. The “old” 2D paper maps of yesterday (as opposed to the digital 2D map on your phone or in your car) are, to me, like the difference between reading a paper book and watching a YouTube video. The latter conveys information well and may require concentration, but is passive. Paper maps require active reading and imagination, where we convert the information into something useful and have to find our route rather than having it show up as a magical blue line on a computer screen.

In the podcast, the guests talked about Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel Globe (“Erdapfel” being German for “Earth Apple”).  Created in 1492, it was Behaim’s best approximation for the earth’s layout. Painstakingly created from his many travels as a merchant and mariner, it is the oldest existing globe known today. And if you’re like me, when your brain registered the auspicious year of 1492 you immediately thought of something else that year is famous for (when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”).

We wouldn’t use Behraim’s globe to circumnavigate the earth today due to a few minor mistakes – for instance, the lack of North or South America.  His globe represents Europe as one large landmass, with various islands around it. Japan is too big.

It was with this limited understanding of the world that Columbus took off that same year on what he believed was a voyage to India, and that’s what makes me think about us, today.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

The purpose of this post is to help the non-technical understand the term “Artificial Intelligence” as well as related terms like “Machine Learning” and “Deep Learning”.

Since I work in the tech industry, I know our industry’s legendary power to hype a new idea and create new terms. For example, the idea of using off-site computing resources was once known as a Service Bureau – a term that was later supplanted by “ASP” (Application Service Provider), then SaaS (Software as a Service), the Cloud, and so forth.  Embedded in these changes in terminology were changes in technology, but for as much as the tech world celebrates the power of individual it has a tendency to jump on the latest bandwagon en masse, which brings us to Artificial Intelligence.

A comic book prediction from 1965

You can’t swing a dead cat in the tech world these days without someone using one (or all) of the following terms:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Machine Learning
  • Deep Learning

I’m going to keep things pretty high level here. Let’s get started…

Are You Ready for Change?

When I was at my Military Intelligence Officer’s course in the mid-1980’s, our coursework was almost completely focused on encountering Soviet armored divisions storming into Germany’s Fulda Gap, despite the fact a) that battle had already been thoroughly planned and we weren’t going to add any insights, and b) it was clear at that point that the Cold War was shifting to new venues. Within four years of that time the Berlin Wall had fallen and I was in a war in the Middle East.

Here’s another example of how organizations have been resistant to change: In the hilarious memo below, written in 1935, Col. Hoffman – a member of the Army Air Corps – objects to taking “Equitation” (horsemanship) classes in part because he fails “… to see that horses have any place in the science of aviation”. Unsurprisingly, his request was denied.

It’s not just the military however. We humans are terrible at change.  It frightens us – a fact that deserves some consideration given the fact change is coming faster than ever.

Luddites were people who smashed machinery they saw threatening their jobs.  Now it’s a term used to describe hopelessly backwards-looking people who think they can beat back technology. Nobody wants to be called a Luddite.

When the first railway opened, detractors said that the human body was not meant to travel at 30 miles per hour and could possibly melt at that speed (similar concerns were voiced about super-sonic flight several decades later).

The newly-invented telephone was claimed by some to be an instrument of the devil. Versions of this accusation have been voiced about virtually every other new communication method, except for the fax machine – which may in fact have actually been an instrument of the devil (word of the fax machine’s death has not yet reached the HIPAA-regulated medical community: “no we can’t email your health information directly to your personal, password-protected email address, but we can send images of that same medical info to a fax machine located in a high-traffic area at your place of work”).

It’s easy to be smart about bad ideas of the past. But we humans repeat our mistakes.  Here are some changes that are coming:

Amazing Grace

One of the greatest sources of instruction and motivation is learning about great people who came before us.  One of these stories is the story of Grace Hopper – aka “Amazing Grace” by those impressed with her accomplishments.  Grace was a computer scientist in the 1940s until her death in the 1980s.  Also – get this – she was a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy.  Quite a big story for a small woman during years when the barriers to women in technology were even greater than they are today.

To illustrate how uncommon it was to find women in technology circles, I remember back to an incident that occurred to me at an airport probably over 25 years ago.  It was pre-9/11, but airport security was basically similar as it is today, albeit with less theatre and dumping out of water bottles.  Laptops had become more commonplace and, as a way to determine they were actually functional computers it was common for security personnel to ask travelers to turn on their machine. Once they saw something appear on the screen they would be satisfied and allow the traveler to pass.

On this one day, I happened to be carrying my Gateway laptop (many of you remember that company, a fascinating story in it’s own right).  The problem with my Gateway was that at unpredictable times it would refuse to turn on despite my pushing the power button – which when you think about it is a pretty big problem if a user should ever want to actually use the computer.

It turns out it’s an even bigger problem when you’re standing in an airport and a security guard is looking at you suspiciously while you fruitlessly peck at various keys.

So I used my mobile phone (which probably was the size of a brick) to call Nancy, one of the IT people at the telecommunications company I worked for.  I knew Nancy well – she was great. Nancy told me that they’d been having this problem with other laptops and I should flip it over, open the battery cover, extract the (massive) battery for a few seconds, replace the battery and then re-try.  I did this, and it worked.

The security guard who had been supervising all of this was an older guy – probably in his sixties. He had clearly been listening as I was talking to Nancy, and as I’m putting my laptop in my bag, the following conversation ensues:

Primum Non Nocere

Often cited as a key tenet in the Hippocratic Oath, primun non nocere is translated as “first, do no harm”. It is one of the great supporting ideas of both ancient and modern medicine: sometimes it is better to do nothing than it is to do something and risk harm to the patient.

Primun non nocere has applicability in our interconnected worlds and industries. In a rush to innovate/disintermediate/cannibalize existing markets and products, if we don’t consider how our efforts impact the final customer experience, we run the risk of doing harm.  I think the great comic Steven Wright captured how mysterious and interconnected the world is – delivered in his signature deadpan tone of voice:

“In my house there’s this light switch that doesn’t do anything. Every so often I would flick it on and off just to check. Yesterday, I got a call from a woman in Madagascar. She said, ‘Cut it out.’”

In my career I have worked with a financial brand that you almost certainly use. They are enormous. They make billions of dollars in their sleep. And they know they have a great position, so I have often heard people from this company repeat the following mantra, which I’m sure is beaten into their heads during new employee orientation: “defend the castle”. They are primarily worried about doing no harm, but that concept isn’t reserved only for behemoths.

Clayton Christensen and others have pointed out the challenge of castle defending in markets where attackers nibble their way up from the bottom.  And I certainly have written a great deal on the importance of innovation and working smart.

But if you have customers, and they’re depending upon your product or service to deliver a great experience, primun non nocere is a great idea to consider as you’re designing the next “big thing” you’re thinking about.

We don’t want our doctors to operate on us based upon whims.  Similarly, our customers want us to invest the same care in our own efforts. They want us to deliver on the jobs they hired us to do: delivering on our brand promise and product commitment and make them look good in the process.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

Good luck!

Two Lessons from Elon Musk

Elon Musk. It’s hard to read any business publication and not run across some story of the Thomas Edison/Henry Ford of our time.  I read two particular stories – one where Elon was used to inspire action, and the other where Elon himself pledged to take action. Let’s see what we can learn from both examples.

The first example, curiously, is a BMW employee meeting. As detailed in this article, BMW employees were brought to an airplane hanger and Elon’s sinister face was used to put the fear of …well…Elon into the assembled throng:

“Inside a bright auditorium at an abandoned airfield near Munich, rows of men and women gaze at images flashing by on a giant screen: a Mercedes sedan; Porsche and Jaguar SUVs; the face of Elon Musk. “We’re in the midst of an electric assault,” the presenter intones as the Tesla chief’s photo pops up. “This must be taken very seriously.”

The audience is composed of BMW Group employees flown in for a combination pep rally/horror film intended to make them afraid about the future of the industry. The takeaway: The market is shifting in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago, and BMW must adapt. The subtext is a recognition that the company has gone from leader to laggard.”

The scene above sounds a bit like the horror scenes force-fed to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or perhaps the iconic George Orwell-themed Apple TV Ad introducing the first Macintosh. I like to believe the film was accompanied by some thrilling Wagner music.

My take:

  • BMW is smart to pick a villain. People respond better when they can envision an external threat (something, sadly, that political leaders know too well).
  • If you’re Elon Musk, you know that when the competition is using you to scare their employees you’re doing something right. Not that Elon really cares.
  • That said, the truest barriers to established brands’ success in the new era are seldom external.  As Clayton Christensen and others have pointed out, the eating of existing market share is consumed in small bites and enabled by business models that are constructed on new technologies and business processes.

My guess is that BMW spent quite a bit producing their internal horror flick, flying people in for the pep rally and feeding them excellent German sausages and beer.  Meanwhile, back at Tesla….

What Are You Incenting?

When I was first introduced to economics, I found that I enjoyed the history of economic thought – the great writers such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Keynes, Galbraith, etc.  But then my econ classes turned more toward math and graphs. I eventually lost my original enthusiasm for the field but gained some appreciation for why it can be referred to as “the dismal science”.

Economics has once again become interesting to me as a number of excellent books have been published that approach economics from the standpoint of psychology and incentives. The study of incentives has always been key to economic thought – that isn’t anything new. However, it feels to me that there has been a lot of fresh writing in this area – examples include everything from Malcolm Gladwell to Daniel Kahneman to the Freakonomics books, Dan Ariely’s writings, and others. Truly, whatever behavior you subsidize or incent you will get more of.

Since I’m confounded by the morass of the American healthcare system and what passes for “debate” on this issue in Washington, I have a tendency to pick up books that help me understand different points of view on the problem. Books that fit this category include Catastrophic Care by David Goldhill and America’s Bitter Pill by Steven Brill (for the essay that launched Brill’s book, go here).

I just finished An American Sickness by Dr Elisabeth Rosenthal, a new and powerful book that I highly recommend. Keep in mind that I’m not recommending it because it’s always fun to read. Since Dr. Rosenthal relates a number of stories about people being caught in a web of overcharges and diminishing competition, it reads more like a horror novel than some of the Stephen King books I’ve read. I almost had to sleep with the light on.

Since this is a blog about leadership, innovation and personal effectiveness, I’ll leave the healthcare debate aside. However, this one section caught my attention:

“Cataracts can be detected during an eye exam long before they become a real bother to patients, so there is much discretion about when to perform surgery. Studies have shown that the rates of cataract surgery are highly dependent on how much doctors are paid to do the procedure. In one study in St. Louis, the number of cataract surgeries performed dropped 45 percent six months after a group of doctors went on salary and were no longer paid per surgery.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that to be a bit alarming. It’s a pretty good indicator that doctors who are incented to do cataract surgeries will do borderline cases to pump up their income.  And this got me to thinking about incentives in general.

Can You Go Around a Leaf?

Among the greatest innovations over the past few decades – greater perhaps than Pumpkin Spice Latte – are the rise of animated movies that provide lessons for children and adults alike. The movie Toy Story sticks out in my mind as the movie that changed it all. Pixar (now part of Walt Disney) created movies that were fun for kids but also provided great gags that sailed over the heads of the little ones but got a laugh from Mom and Dad.

One of those movies is A Bug’s Life, which gives Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper the full Pixar treatment. I have always loved A Bug’s Life because it intersperses profound lessons about hard work and innovation with some hilarious scenes.

The ants in the movie are diligent in their efforts to collect enough food for the grasshoppers, who are bullies demanding ever-greater production from the ant colony (pause here to consider themes of slavery and mafia “protection” rackets). The ants work hard, as ants do, but aren’t particularly innovative – that is, until a self-styled innovator and rugged individualist ant named Flick decides to look at the grasshopper/ant divide through a different lens.

Although Flick isn’t featured in this scene, it represents a hilarious metaphor for those of us who panic when our normal routines are interrupted by the unexpected obstacle. Enjoy….

Desert Storm, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lentil

As I write this I am eating a bowl of lentil soup, which reminds me of a story. Let me set the stage….

It’s winter of 1991, and I’m in Kuwait City. As you recall, this is when coalition forces entered Kuwait City as part of a multinational effort to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from the city – aka “Desert Storm”. Although few US forces actually entered into the city itself, there were some unique US troops running around the city during/after the short ground war. I was in Civil Affairs – the part of the Army that is a liaison between local civilians and governments. Our much cooler colleagues from Special Forces served as liaisons between our military and the local military elements on the ground.

I was part of “Task Force Freedom“, a small task force set up to work through the complex – and impossible to anticipate – challenges that arose during the operation. As the ground war quickly came to an end, our mission turned to getting Kuwait City on the road to recovery.

Our immediate concerns related to basics like security, sanitation and food distribution. The previous months of Iraqi occupation of Kuwait City had been hard on some city residents, so in the early days, along with our other missions, we were in the city making sure large trucks filled with food were distributed to neighborhoods as requested by the Kuwaiti government.

The Era of Benevolent Deception

New technology can be great for customers – sometimes too great. In an era when companies strive to “amaze” and “delight” their customers, they sometimes are forced to de-amaze and un-delight the user experience because their customers have a hard time adjusting to the change.  Consider….

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 3.09.52 PM

Turbo Tax is able to return results in a fraction of a second. That would be awesome, except it turns out that people don’t trust something that is that awesome. I mean, how do you calculate taxes that quickly? There must have been a mistake.

So the Turbo Tax developers created a series of animations that tell users that the program is “look(ing) over every detail” while an animation shows a tax form lighting up line after line.  The animation is really bogus – its only reason for existence is to make you feel confident in the results. As the animation plays, you think to yourself: “look at that animation – this Turbo Tax thing is working hard!”.

This is a form of “benevolent deception“, a term coined by University of Michigan researcher Eytan Adar and his co-researchers from Microsoft, which is a practice of designing experiences that “deceive” users but leave them better off in the process.

Here’s another story, courtesy of my friend John.