Alice’s question and the Cheshire Cat’s reply mirror our relationship with technology. The power and complexity of technology can make it seem as if we have lost control over our destiny. Machine learning and its recent application to conversation give us the greatest sense of Alice-like bewilderment today.
But the Cheshire Cat’s advice isn’t so mysterious when you consider that, despite the occasional perplexing conversational gaffes from Alexa and Siri, we have mastered voice technology to the point where it is poised to revolutionize productivity. Although today voice is mostly a consumer phenomenon, just like the smartphone, it promises to cross over into the enterprise very soon—and will perhaps even make work fun again, as we explain in our feature story “Say What?!?”
Machine learning can now imitate us to the degree that it no longer feels like flattery. But that doesn’t mean it’s taking over; we still have the power to choose our own fate. In our story “Multiplier Effect” the leaders of two different services firms that sit squarely in the path of machine learning’s advance, one in accounting, the other in law, talk about how they are managing the transition to their advantage rather than letting it run them over.
The law and accounting firms intend to use machine learning to remake their business models and the ways that they organize themselves. The technology provides an opportunity to focus our uniquely human skills of creativity and adaptability on putting machine learning to work for us, and with us, instead of shunning it and making it the feared enemy.
We can also put technology to work to make a difference in preserving the natural world in ways that were not possible even a few years ago. Through creative use of drones, GPS, and other technologies, EPI-USE, a global software integrator based in South Africa, adapted the software tools it sells to customers to monitor and protect endangered elephants and rhinos from poachers, as we describe in our cover story, “Elephants on the Balance Sheet.”
In the past, such efforts may have been exclusively offered as part of an organization’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programming. But now customers, employees, and shareholders are demanding that businesses aspire to a higher purpose beyond CSR. Purpose must be embedded in a company’s core business operations. New technologies make it possible to conserve resources and create more sustainable business models while enhancing profitability. EPI-USE, for example, has a division devoted to applying its nonprofit-focused innovations to commercial applications.
Whether sustaining the earth, transforming business models, or making our interactions with technology more natural, we’re able to shape technology to our needs, not the other way around. How we might deliberately shape the technological systems that surround us depends on where we want to end up. D!