Why Technology Still Needs the Human Touch

Last week I had the privilege of attending the ITA 2014 Fall Collaborative in Washington D.C. This meeting was co-located with the Digital CPA Conference and we were privy to some great speakers. One of my favorites was Nicholas Carr, who has written extensively about the intersection of technology and human progress. A favorite breakout session was Marc Teerlink, the Chief Business Strategist for the IBM Watson project. Upon reflection, these two presentations were connected in more ways than I thought.

IBM Watson has moved from R&D to the commercialization phase. IBM is making a major investment ($1B) in this effort that uses cognitive computing to translate data into dollars.

Teerlink provided many examples where this is being applied by early adopters in healthcare, financial services and other areas that fit his framework of “observe, interpret, evaluate and decide.” Essentially, this refers to knowledge work and how to augment our ability to absorb the vast source of data that are available to us. He noted “we don’t have a data problem, we have a filter problem.” By this he meant that we so often feel overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of data that comes at us, but the real issue is that we don’t have a filter mechanism that tells us what is relevant for the situation.

Later, Carr shared his view of the new world of technology we live in. Essentially he stated that the cloud is our data center—a large central utility—much like the power plant of 100 years ago. Local computing (private data centers, local servers) is being displaced just like steam engines and local power plants were in their era. We are rapidly transitioning from the old infrastructure to the new. Our biggest challenge may be rethinking our business and anticipating what it is going to change. A key part of that is understanding where we add value and separating routine activities from innovative, unique and knowledge enhancing skills. One hurdle is integrating deep automation.

Now we’ve come full circle. Deep automation is based upon capabilities such as IBM Watson and highly sophisticated combination of technologies (cloud, mobile, big data, internet of things, social) that come together in ways we are just beginning to realize. For examples, look no further than driverless cars and 3D printing.

In Carr’s recent book The Glass Cage, he warns that there are unintended consequences of automation. At the most basic level, there are two categories:

  • First, complacency. We become complacent because we trust technology to work flawlessly. We substitute the computer for our thinking.
  • Secondly, accuracy. We believe anything presented to us through the pane of glass. Even though if it was on paper or spoken to us we might question it. The fact that it is from a computer and presented dispassionately, we believe it.

Here is a vivid example of the dual pitfalls of complacency and accuracy. A Seattle bus driver flawlessly executed the route presented to him by his GPS. He was complacent and didn’t give the route a thought. Even when presented with road signs indicating low bridge ahead, it didn’t register caution. The GPS (computer) presented the data and he proceeded despite additional signs, the GPS continued the route and his bus with 12’ clearance crashed into the 9’ clearance bridge. The accuracy of the GPS was absent an input (vehicle height) and constraint (bridge height). He trusted its accuracy implicitly and followed the bias that since it’s automated, it must be accurate.

077 Seattle Bus Image

Photo: Dan DeLong/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Our challenge, then, is to focus our attention, stay alert and use these powerful tools to augment our abilities. As Marc Teerlink stated, “Computers don’t ‘predict.’ they present.” They present information and knowledge based upon rich sources of data. But they don’t have the intuition (tacit knowledge) that could be codified into a set of explicit rules. When we confuse this simple rule, we fall victim to complacency and an accuracy bias that is dangerous.

Our relationship with technology is far from perfect, but useful nonetheless. I much prefer the world where we can use sophisticated technology and allow the override by the highly trained professional when required.

Additional resources:

Weekly Download 14.24

download-158006_640Here’s a recap of news and notes from around the Web that caught my attention over the past week or so.

Just when you think the development of artificial Intelligence has stalled, here are The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World.

How We Trick Our Brains Into Feeling Productive is an interesting take on procrastination and productivity.

The complete guide to using your smartphone abroad is just that.

Malcolm Gladwell on What Really Makes People Disruptive: attitude. This attribute trumps tech, money and brainpower.

In A Data Analyst’s Blog Is Transforming How New Yorkers See Their City, NPR reveals the power of data, presentation and social media tools. A smart 33-year-old living on Brooklyn is affecting government policy in a big way through his blog.  A perfect story on inquiring minds using the newly published large data sources (New York City’s open data) and asking questions/displaying data in easy to consume ways and making it visible.

Have You Noticed? The Internet has Changed

IMG_0333A recent Wall Street Journal article points out that with the transition to mobile (smartphones and tablets), apps are killing the web. While mobile device usage has climbed to over 2.5 hours per day, 86% of that time is spent in applications and only 14% of time on the web.

“And the way it’s dying has farther-reaching implications than almost anything else in technology today.”

Of course, our on-the-go lifestyles and widespread, high-speed data access on mobile are large factors. We sit and we pull out our phones, habitually. We constantly multi-task in front of the TV, at a restaurant, during sporting events or while waiting for an appointment. By doing so, we try to pack more into our day.

Why does this matter? It’s a tangible measure of how our expectations have changed.

  • Ease of use and user interface must be intuitive and not require training.
  • Simple and limited function is okay.
  • We’re used to using multiple tools to accomplish a stream of activity.
  • We use multiple devices (phone, tablet, laptop) and want access from any/all and are accustomed to slight differences.
  • Finally, we expect fast access anywhere and anytime.

We aren’t just talking about it, we’re living it. We can work, play or be entertained by this very functional small piece of glass, metal and plastic.

Is “Smartphone” a Misnomer?

On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone as a combination of three devices: a “widescreen iPod with touch controls,” a “revolutionary mobile phone” and a “breakthrough internet communicator.” It’s pretty amazing how it has transformed in six short years, to the point where I don’t really think of my iPhone 6 Plus as a phone at all. Wouldn’t “smartdevice” be a better name, given its many features and functions?

Perhaps you don’t even realize all of this technology is packed into your device or understand how it can be used—I didn’t for quite some time. Depending on the situation or user, those features and functions are more or less important and are used to a greater or lesser degree.

Hardware Feature Function
Microphone, speaker Audio recording and playback
Camera (front and back) Video capture
HD touch display Output display and device navigation
Accelerometer Measures speed and distance
Barometer Measures elevation
GPS, iBeacon micro-location and others Various ways to determine location
Touch ID Identification.
Cellular, wireless data, Wi-Fi Data transmission
Gyroscope Orientation of the phone
Proximity sensor Distance to sensor
Ambient light sensor Senses ambient light

It is the applications that create value and functionality based on these features. A few examples:

  • Panoramic photography uses several of the sensors to compensate for your unsteady hand and put together a 180 degree view.
  • Photos are tagged with the location taken based upon GPS and access to the internet over the data connection.
  • iHealth application records steps, distance and elevation along with other coming attractions.
  • Location technology is not only integrated into mapping, but into many other aspects of the phone. Examples include tagging photos, ‘find me’ or people tracking, alert to location before the battery dies and location-based reminders (such as “pick up laundry” will alert you when you drive by the cleaners).

We’ve come a long way, and I can’t wait to see how these smartdevices continue to evolve in the future.

In Just Three years

Three years ago we took a family vacation to Europe, our first trip there. I was appropriately outfitted with phone, computer, camera, tripod, etc.—everything a technophile would need.

When we returned earlier this month, I kept it light: iPhone and iPad only. And I probably would have been fine without the iPad.

  • LAST TIME: Phone and data connectivity was spotty at best. It wasn’t even reliable in the accommodations. THIS TIME: Rock solid connectivity.  Fast, actually.  At one point, I made a FaceTime call in the middle of a Parisian street and had no difficulty at all.
  • LAST TIME: Astronomical rates for international phone minutes and texts. THIS TIME: We loaded $1.00 on Viber for external call minutes from France to a U.S. landline. At a rate of $0.02 per minute, my wife kept in touch with her dad for the whole of 10 days for $0.66. Calls and messages between Viber users were free.
  • LAST TIME: Photography was complicated. Not only managing the equipment, but later downloading and manipulating photos was a big job. THIS TIME: My handy new iPhone 6 Plus was a rock star. Each day I was able to edit, upload, organize and share images quickly and easily.

I wonder what a return trip in three years will be like?


Mindfulness Meets Business

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness has gone mainstream.  Once only practiced by new age gurus and yogis, it is sweeping the nation, moving into gyms, homes and healthcare organizations at a rapid pace. Now it’s making the leap into corporate America, with Silicon Valley leading the charge (no surprise). Resources abound. If you’re as intrigued as I am, fire up your favorite search engine and query “mindfulness” or check out this handy list as a starting point.

Perhaps the seminal work on mindfulness is Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It has been recently revised and updated 25 years after first release. Kabat-Zinn also developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reductions program (MBSR), which has trained over 20,000 people in his techniques.

By Tiffany Vaché and Jason Sullivan

By Tiffany Vaché and Jason Sullivan

The Mind Full, or Mindful? wiki includes PowerPoint presentations, videos, websites, books and journals to facilitate a deep, varied dive into the subject.

10% Happier by Dan Harris hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller list earlier this year. The author, a noted television journalist, recounts his journey toward meditation and mindfulness following an on-air panic attack.

Colleges are getting on board. NYU’s New Mindfulness in Business Initiative is exploring how mindfulness can transform the next generation of leaders and innovators.  One student describes her initial foray into meditation.

Time-Mindfulness-020314Mindful magazine has a circulation of more than 85,000, with steep growth projected. Also in the periodical space, The Mindful Revolution was the cover story in a February 2014 issue of Time.

Otto Schamer, in Davos: Mindfulness, Hotspots, and Sleepwalkers, notes the rapid rise of mindfulness at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this past spring. The drivers of this trend are described as new tech, new challenges and new science.

Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds is one leading scientific authority who is documenting the positive effects of mediation on the brain (here at UW Madison). A powerful documentary, Free the Mind, features his work with military veterans and school children.