The Shocking Truth Behind Bots At Work

Susan Galer

Many of us are comfortable talking to conversational chat bots for reminders, the latest weather or news, directions to the closest restaurant, and other daily tasks. Now artificial intelligence-powered digital assistants are poised to make workplace processes just as shockingly easy.

During the next three years, IDC predicts that seven of the top 10 cognitive/AI use cases will be industry-focused, totaling 85% of priority investments. Peter Weigt, head of Innovation Center Silicon Valley at SAP, sees this growth as a logical progression in the relationship between people and computers.

“We all like to talk, but no one likes talking to machines. Humans have always had to learn how machines worked, learning programming languages to interact with computers and tell them explicitly what to do. It should be the other way around. We should be able to tell, through our human voice in natural conversations, what machines should do for us,” said Weigt.

Weigt proved his point at the recent SAPPHIRE NOW & ASUG Conference, where he demonstrated how conversational apps can revolutionize the workplace.

Lucy streamlines procurement

Struggling with time-consuming, disconnected procurement processes, a global healthcare company decided to host a hackathon competition, challenging vendors to develop a solution that would reduce the time – from hours to minutes – it took to find the right supplier partner. The answer was a chatbot “assistant” named Lucy, who delivered the kind of buying experience consumers cherish on their favorite shopping sites.

From the start, it was abundantly clear how easy this conversation was going to be with a clean user interface that mimicked the look and feel of many social business platforms. Then Lucy’s natural and genuinely helpful conversation kicked in. After someone selected from specific procurement-related actions, Lucy took it from there. When asked if a supplier was paid, Lucy immediately found all the related purchase orders, highlighted the error, and fixed it in seconds.

“Machine learning can easily jump in to make corrections because the system understands a large database of words, and particularly something that is not just common knowledge, but also enterprise words in context,” said Weigt.

When asked about ordering chairs, Lucy responded by asking what kind of chairs were wanted and how much someone wanted to spend. When asked why price mattered, Lucy pulled up relevant videos explaining the company’s purchasing policies. Once the budget range was specified, Lucy instantly streamlined the procurement process by providing the contact details of the person responsible for ordering the chairs and the necessary next steps.

Bots raise the level of business conversation

Weigt chalked up the fast emergence of chat bots (like SAP Co-pilot) in the workplace to rising levels of computing power and usage of message apps, along with the increasing ability of machines to understand and act.

“The bot gives you the right information at the right time. You don’t have to search in complex databases, ask colleagues, or browse the Internet,” said Weigt. “We have the language data. Businesses can store huge amounts of data and, with growing infrastructures, can make it more widely available to enable conversational applications.”

Unlike some experts, Weigt was candid about what AI can and cannot do in the business. “In AI today, you won’t find a superhuman understanding that can do everything in your enterprise system covering autonomous personalization based on patterns, context, and history and proactively providing you all information you need. This is what we’re aspiring to and where we are headed, starting with enterprise bots.”

Over time, Weigt expects machine learning tools like chat bots will continuously expand the value they provide to the business, making all connected enterprise systems intelligent and conversational. That’s one shocking truth certain to delight many employees and the customers they serve.

For more on how AI is transforming business, see An AI Shares My Office.

This blog was originally posted on SAP Business Trends

Follow me on TwitterSAP Business Trends, or Facebook. Read all of my Forbes articles here.

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Data Geeks Rewrite The Business Rules Playbook

Robin Meyerhoff

When it comes to digital business, Andrew McAfee knows a thing or two. A principal research scientist at MIT, prolific writer, and management expert, McAfee is a leader in understanding and explaining how digital technologies are changing business, the economy, and society.

At the recent SAP Leonardo Live event in Chicago that focused on digital transformation, McAfee urged his audience to throw out the business playbook they’ve been using for the past 30 years.

“The right way to run a factory in the steam era became a really, really bad way to run it in the era of electrical power,” he said. “Similarly, during a technology transition — and afterwards — the advice you used to follow becomes bad advice.”

McAfee explained that fast, profound shifts are occurring in three key areas: process, company, and industry. And he provided a new playbook to help companies navigate those changes and succeed.

Process: From people to machines

The traditional wisdom about process, which McAfee defines as “getting stuff done,” is to let machines handle the routine work like accounting or record keeping, and have people use their accumulated wisdom to make the judgements calls. This is the playbook of yesterday.

“Profound shifts are occurring in three key areas: process, company, industry”

McAfee explains that in most companies, decisions have typically been based on the highest-paid person’s opinion, or “HiPPOs.” They follow their gut, past experiences, and education, but they are being threatened by what McAfee calls “the Geek” — people who use data to make decisions.

“When the Geek needs to make a tough call, they gather evidence, do the best analysis they can, then they follow the evidence — even if it doesn’t go along with their gut or their experience,” McAfee explains.

“But here is where things get interesting,” he says. “In 136 studies of decision making by HiPPOs versus Geeks, 48 percent of the time HiPPOs added nothing over Geeks’ approach. Furthermore, 46 percent of the time HiPPOs provided an inferior decision. HiPPOs were only clearly better in eight percent of the cases. We need to make HiPPOs an endangered species.”

McAfee believes that with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, “Now we have a new toolkit to help us sift through these crazy amounts data, see patterns, and make very sophisticated, accurate judgements in extremely complicated situations.”

He explained that AI and machine learning technologies have leapfrogged much further ahead today than anyone could have anticipated, and are ready to take over making judgement calls.

“Go is 3,000-year-old Asian strategy game. Computers have been laughably bad at Go. Until last year, when the world’s best Go player became a computer,” said McAfee.

Analyzing the game played by AlphaGo, a Google AI company, experts focused on one particular move — move 37 — that made no sense to human players but ultimately helped the machine win. The lesson learned? AlphaGo doesn’t just play the game better than we do, it plays differently than we do.

McAfee is optimistic: “Together with machines, we’re going to make progress in some very difficult areas. And when we rewrite the business playbook, remember: machines are demonstrating excellent judgement.”

Company: From core to crowd

“For about 25 years we’ve been telling business that to succeed they need to strengthen their core — ‘core competency, core strength, core capabilities,’” said McAfee. “The idea of the core is a small number of things that differentiate you from competitors, realize value for customer, help you succeed in your markets.”

But, he explains, now there are millions of interconnected adults on the internet and if you can activate the energy of the crowd, amazing things can happen.

McAfee provided an example where a Harvard Business School expert on crowd sourcing and innovation Karim Lakhani worked with the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Harvard Medical School to try and improve the ability to sequence human white-blood cell genomes. They got good results.

But when Lakhani opened up an online competition to the crowd as an algorithmic challenge they got amazing results in both accuracy and speed. McAfee says the top results, “showed an improvement that was three orders of magnitude faster, without sacrificing accuracy,” compared to the NIH and Harvard Medical School results.

“We’re seeing companies that don’t focus on growing their core. They embrace the crowd from the start,” said McAfee. “We will see how this plays out. But when we rewrite the business playbook, we need to remind ourselves: the crowd is surprisingly wise.”

Industries: From industry to platform

“I grew up in McKinsey understanding the playbook rule: There is no substitute for knowing an industry inside and out. For the past 30 years, the business playbook has said industry structure determines successful business models,” said McAfee.

But in three very different industries McAfee argues that platform is making the difference when it comes to disruptive innovation.

Take the smart phone industry: The defining moment was when Apple opened up the App Store as a platform for outside developers. For urban transportation, it was Uber and now group fitness is being transformed with ClassPass, a platform that allows people to take classes at gyms by subscribing as members to ClassPass, not the gym.

McAfee explains: “ClassPass says, ‘Don’t join a gym. Sign up with us. You can pick whatever classes you want and get variety.’ To gyms they say, ‘you have some empty spaces. We can fill them. You won’t get the full price but some revenue is better than none.’”

Like with Apple and Uber, the platform for ClassPass brings together products, services, sellers, and consumers.

If platforms work, McAfee believes there are many advantages: You get the network effects of increased demand, companies can control the rules of engagement. With an open platform, you can crowd-source innovation and get additional information, which is used to create better pricing and matching of services.

This blows apart the distinct industry-sector differences people used to assume fueled growth and replaces it with the mandate to find the right platform for your business.

McAfee concludes, “I am pretty confident that the successful businesses of tomorrow are going to have a lot more machines, platforms, and crowds in them than today. I am really confident that following the industrial-age business playbook is a really good recipe for failure.”

This article originally appeared on SAP News Center.

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Robin Meyerhoff

About Robin Meyerhoff

Robin Meyerhoff has been at SAP for over 10 years. She started in product communications and has covered a variety of technologies and topics: analytics, mobile, databases, SAP HANA, cloud, sustainability and corporate social responsibility. She currently works within Global Corporate Affairs as a writer on the Content Team and focused on innovation.

Digitalist Flash Briefing: Social Robotics Pioneer Cynthia Breazeal Builds Your Next BFF

Bonnie D. Graham

Today’s briefing looks at a future where social robots are adopted as companions to improve our quality of life. One day, they may provide personalized education to children, support the elderly in their own homes, and encourage our health and wellness goals. But it can’t happen until we build robot-human trust.

  • Amazon Echo or Dot: Enable the “Digitalist” flash briefing skill, and ask Alexa to “play my flash briefings” on every business day.
  • Alexa on a mobile device:
    • Download the Amazon Alexa app: Select Skills, and search “Digitalist”. Then, select Digitalist, and click on the Enable button.
    • Download the Amazon app: Click on the microphone icon and say “Play my flash briefing.”

Find and listen to previous Flash Briefings on Digitalistmag.com.

Read more on today’s topic

 

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About Bonnie D. Graham

Bonnie D. Graham is the creator, producer and host/moderator of 29 Game-Changers Radio series presented by SAP, bringing technology and business strategy thought leadership panel discussions to a global audience via the Business Channel on World Talk Radio. A broadcast journalist with nearly 20 years in media production and hosting, Bonnie has held marketing communications management roles in the business software, financial services, and real estate industries. She calls SAP Radio her “dream job”. Listen to Coffee Break with Game-Changers.

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

About Stephanie Overby

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The Human Factor In An AI Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and its ability to perform human tasks accelerates exponentially, we’re finally seeing some attempts to wrestle with what that means, not just for business, but for humanity as a whole.

From the first stone ax to the printing press to the latest ERP solution, technology that reduces or even eliminates physical and mental effort is as old as the human race itself. However, that doesn’t make each step forward any less uncomfortable for the people whose work is directly affected – and the rise of AI is qualitatively different from past developments.

Until now, we developed technology to handle specific routine tasks. A human needed to break down complex processes into their component tasks, determine how to automate each of those tasks, and finally create and refine the automation process. AI is different. Because AI can evaluate, select, act, and learn from its actions, it can be independent and self-sustaining.

Some people, like investor/inventor Elon Musk and Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma, are focusing intently on how AI will impact the labor market. It’s going to do far more than eliminate repetitive manual jobs like warehouse picking. Any job that involves routine problem-solving within existing structures, processes, and knowledge is ripe for handing over to a machine. Indeed, jobs like customer service, travel planning, medical diagnostics, stock trading, real estate, and even clothing design are already increasingly automated.

As for more complex problem-solving, we used to think it would take computers decades or even centuries to catch up to the nimble human mind, but we underestimated the exponential explosion of deep learning. IBM’s Watson trounced past Jeopardy champions in 2011 – and just last year, Google’s DeepMind AI beat the reigning European champion at Go, a game once thought too complex for even the most sophisticated computer.

Where does AI leave human?

This raises an urgent question for the future: How do human beings maintain our economic value in a world in which AI will keep getting better than us at more and more things?

The concept of the technological singularity – the point at which machines attain superhuman intelligence and permanently outpace the human mind – is based on the idea that human thinking can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. However, the limits of human performance have yet to be found. It’s possible that people are only at risk of lagging behind machines because nothing has forced us to test ourselves at scale.

Other than a handful of notable individual thinkers, scientists, and artists, most of humanity has met survival-level needs through mostly repetitive tasks. Most people don’t have the time or energy for higher-level activities. But as the human race faces the unique challenge of imminent obsolescence, we need to think of those activities not as luxuries, but as necessities. As technology replaces our traditional economic value, the economic system may stop attaching value to us entirely unless we determine the unique value humanity offers – and what we can and must do to cultivate the uniquely human skills that deliver that value.

Honing the human advantage

As a species, humans are driven to push past boundaries, to try new things, to build something worthwhile, and to make a difference. We have strong instincts to explore and enjoy novelty and risk – but according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, these instincts crumble if we don’t cultivate them.

AI is brilliant at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data. What it can’t do is deduce the existence, or even the possibility, of information it isn’t already aware of. It can’t imagine radical new products and business models. Or ask previously unconceptualized questions. Or envision unimagined opportunities and achievements. AI doesn’t even have common sense! As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, a robot doesn’t know that water is wet or that strings can pull but not push. Nor can robots engage in what Kaku calls “intellectual capitalism” – activities that involve creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humor, and original thought.

At the moment, though, we don’t generally value these so-called “soft skills” enough to prioritize them. We expect people to develop their competency in emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, curiosity, critical thinking, and persistence organically, as if these skills simply emerge on their own given enough time. But there’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

Lessons in being human

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level – and to do so not just as soon as possible, but as early as possible.

Singularity University chairman Peter Diamandis, for example, advocates revamping the elementary school curriculum to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and persistence. He envisions a curriculum that, among other things, teaches kids to communicate, ask questions, solve problems with creativity, empathy, and ethics, and accept failure as an opportunity to try again. These concepts aren’t necessarily new – Waldorf and Montessori schools have been encouraging similar approaches for decades – but increasing automation and digitization make them newly relevant and urgent.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is approaching the same problem from the opposite side, by starting with outcomes. This organization is pushing to redesign the secondary school transcript to better reflect whether and how high school students are acquiring the necessary combination of creative, critical, and analytical abilities. By measuring student achievement in a more nuanced way than through letter grades and test scores, the consortium’s approach would inherently require schools to reverse-engineer their curricula to emphasize those abilities.

Most critically, this isn’t simply a concern of high-tuition private schools and “good school districts” intended to create tomorrow’s executives and high-level knowledge workers. One critical aspect of the challenge we face is the assumption that the vast majority of people are inevitably destined for lives that don’t require creativity or critical thinking – that either they will somehow be able to thrive anyway or their inability to thrive isn’t a cause for concern. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, which means that everyone will need help acquiring them. For humanitarian, political, and economic reasons, we cannot just write off a large percentage of the population as disposable.

In the end, anything an AI does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique human abilities into account. Why would we want to give up our humanity in favor of letting machines determine whether or not an action or idea is valuable? Instead, while we let artificial intelligence get better at being what it is, we need to get better at being human. That’s how we’ll keep coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like jazz music, graphic novels, self-driving cars, blockchain, machine learning – and AI itself.

Read the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.

Build an intelligent enterprise with AI and machine learning to unite human expertise and computer insights. Run live with SAP Leonardo.


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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

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