Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Einstein

Every year about this time, business school deans from all over the world meet in one place. Last year it was in San Francisco. This year it was in San Diego. Like last year, I took the opportunity to extend my time on the West Coast to include a number of days visiting with alums. I laid out my reasons for doing these visits in a blog post about my trip last year. You can revisit that discussion by clicking here.

Being with 600 deans, all of whom have short attention spans and expect to get their own way, is a trying experience for the conference staff. To keep us all happy, they tend to schedule a provocative speaker or two to keep us talking among ourselves rather than pestering them. This year the speaker was MIT professor Andrew McAfee.

I am not going to be able to do his whole talk justice here, but Dr. McAfee studies artificial intelligence (AI) and what it is likely to do to the workplace of tomorrow. His bottom line is that AI is advancing rapidly and that things that only humans could do like pattern recognition and learning through trial and error are now well within the computer’s grasp. Things that were reserved for humans like driving a car or learning to master a strategy game like “Go” are now things computers can do. And like computational tasks, computers can do them much quicker and soon far more cheaply than humans. Dr. McAfee thinks lots and lots of jobs will be made obsolete in the coming couple of decades as AI evolves…. Certainly within the professional life-span of current UCF students.

If that’s not scary enough, realize that most of the UCF alums I met on the West Coast are involved in the nascent stage of big data: attempts to recognize patterns in large sets of data that can be used to understand us (and our buying needs and habits) better than we understand ourselves. Today humans are looking for those patterns, but if big data can be combined with AI and its prowess at pattern recognition, one wonders if the arrival of Skynet (or Chappie) can be that far behind. Dr. McAfee went so far as to suggest that just a few “stars” — people of exceptional talent, will command most of the world’s productive resources. He wasn’t really sure what the rest of us will be doing.

Now before you freak, I would note that disruptive changes on the scale contemplated by Dr. McAfee (a change he likens to the Industrial Revolution) tend to go down unpredictable paths. While many jobs will die in the process, other new ones often rise to take their place. But those new jobs are likely to have a very different character than the ones destroyed–focusing on hypotheses generation, creativity and team work rather than the things AI will do better than humans.

Which brings me to Albert Einstein who once famously said: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” As usual, Albert was ahead of the curve. I openly wondered via Twitter during the conference if we in higher education are up to the challenge……..

Cluster Hires and Meaningful Buys

After several years of tough state budgets, the University is hiring faculty again. If you come to our Hall of Fame on February 26th, you will learn why I think this is such a big deal. But this post focuses on how we are making those hires and how faculty wanting my support for a cluster hire proposal can strengthen their case.

What is a cluster hire you ask? Well at one level, universities like UCF have always hired with respect to clusters. We call these clusters departments: They are organized around a field of study that has developed a distinct way of looking at the world (e.g., economics, psychology, sociology) or a particular process or set of activities (e.g., chemistry, criminal justice, finance, or marketing). But clusters in university-speak have come to mean organizing around a particular problem (e.g., cancer, clean water, cyber security, poverty) or opportunity (nano-technology, entrepreneurship) rather than as traditional departments do. Topics like poverty or entrepreneurship, so the argument goes, don’t always fit into neat departmental boundaries and that progress is best served by bringing together multi-disciplinary teams to work on them.

Universities don’t administrate their way to research greatness, so a cluster approach best starts with proposals from faculty looking to do something great. They are, after all, the ones who do the research. The problem is most faculty are not accustom to doing research as part of a large multi-disciplinary team. Professors are fiercely independent people accustom to working alone or with a like-minded colleague or two. Ask them what they need to extend their research, they typically ask for more money first and a buddy who thinks just like them second. If they are told new colleagues should be part of a cluster, they round up some acquaintances in other departments and propose clusters with a vengeance that ask for funds to hire more people who think like them. In these proposals each participating department gets a new buddy.

In the sweepstakes for new resources, nobody likes to be left behind. Suffice it to say that I am buried in clusters. I am only a cog in this process. The big decisions will be made at higher levels and they have their own guidelines for proposals. But, I can’t support all of the ones I am seeing, so I’ve developed three questions to ask colleagues soliciting my support:

1. What are the expected short to midterm outcomes that I can expect from this effort? Is it increased research funding of an expected amount? Improvements in publication rankings in an important area? The development of a novel graduate program? The solving of a specific problem in five years? In short, what tangible outcomes should I expect?

2. What will these new hires allow us to do that we cannot achieve with the resources we already have in place? I have seen proposals that identify as many as twenty people on campus with an interest in a particular cluster. My first reaction to that proposal was: Wow, why can’t we get this done with the resources we have? What’s missing from this group? Seems unlikely that it is more of the same people that we already have. So tell me exactly how these new people are going to contribute to the effort. If all they do is contribute to disciplinary strength, I don’t need a cluster hire. If they are radical departures from the people we have, how do they fit in to both the cluster and their proposed home.

3. How is this a meaningful buy? This is an issue of the magnitude of the ask relative to the size of the task. For example, if you asked me for $1 million in hires across departments in an effort to raise our MBA program into the top 50 among US schools, I would reject your request. That in my mind is a five to ten million dollar challenge. One million wouldn’t put much of a dent in that goal. It wouldn’t meaningfully help in the fight to cure all cancers either. I would be better putting that one million elsewhere. So, give me some hard reasons why we can get this done.

Hope this framework helps. I wish you all happy and productive clustering.

Earn A Seat At The Table

The Ambassadors tell me that students don’t know anything about our Hall of Fame. Apparently all those photos in BA 2 don’t capture the imagination of people studying for an exam or waiting to see someone in the Office of Professional Development. That’s a shame: One of the primary purposes of the Hall of Fame is to show students what is possible and inspire them to “get to the one.” So, we’ve cooked up a way to give some engaging students a chance to get out of their comfort zones, earn a seat at the table and have a conversation with a Hall of Fame member.

A look at the numbers gives you a sense of the opportunity. The college has more than 50,000 alumni. Just 65 are in the Hall of Fame. It is a very exclusive club. One of the best aspects of my job is that I get to interact with this highly accomplished group on a regular basis. These are people who have had a wide variety of experiences and have gained unusual perspectives on all sorts of things. I learn something new every time I talk to one of them and because most Knights weren’t born into a life of privilege, they tend to remember where they came from and remain approachable. The key to engaging them is to come with good questions. Having a few good questions shows that you are both prepared and interesting–prerequisites for accomplished people to give you some of their valuable time.

So on February 26th at Rosen Shingle Creek, most of our Hall of Fame members will be in attendance as we induct three more alums into their ranks. Information on the evening can be found by clicking here. As a current student, you can be part of this event by coming up with three great questions you would ask one of those 65 alums at the event. You can view the detailed rules for the contest on our website, but the bottom line is: Impress us with your questions.

Hints: (1) Google a few Hall of Famers. (2) Questions like: “How did you become so successful?” “What advice do you have for people just starting out?” Or “what would you do over again?”….. make me yawn: they don’t require any homework and don’t give me any reason to believe you are interesting. On second thought, these questions annoy me. (3) Questions like: “Mr. Horton, what was the most positive thing you took away from your Enron experience that shaped how you lead today?” (Sorry, Stan can’t attend this year) or “What is going to be the next big thing in your industry and how is that going to impact people pursuing a career in your industry?”…. are much better questions, but these are just examples. The more original you are, the better.

We expect 30 to 35 Hall of Fame attendees that night. We won’t match them with more than one deserving student each, but that means there could be as many as 35 winners. If you do win, we are going to want to know what you learned by having that seat at the table. So, listen carefully.

Good luck. The Hall of Fame is a very fun event. 600 people will be there. Even Lonny attends. A group of engaging students asking questions will make the night even better.