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……..


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