What I Learned This Summer... About AI, Leadering And Me.

Sep 02 2019

Singularity University Campus - Author, Rachel Naomi Remen.

Singularity University Campus - Author, Rachel Naomi Remen.

Similar to students, summers are special to me. I’ve loved reading all the enthusiastic posts recently from former TEDxYouth teammates about the interesting internships and new opportunities they’ve explored this summer. And I can relate. While half my year I’m on a plane attending and speaking at business conferences from the Oslo Business Forum to the National Sports Shooting Foundation (no lie!) to the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, it comes in waves. So, this past Winter, I used time off the road to create a pilot of the Career Fair For the Future for college and high school students (it will be back again in 2020!). And this Summer I decided to deepen my knowledge of two key things:

  1. Artificial Intelligence and its growing role in business
  2. How to build/reshape the economic and social structures that will hold us well in a “post-digital” world

Why? Because I believe these are the two most pressing concerns/opportunities in our lifetime, so I want in on shaping and designing them. And because seeing the future from these two very different perspectives — the day-to-day learning and practical applications of AI vs discussions about the most radical implications all emerging tech can have on society — gives me more insight with which to shape as safe, sustainable and inclusive a future as possible (more on this in a bit…). 

So what does that kind of summer actually look like? Well, I joined KUNGFU.AI, a new AI services company recently founded in Austin, dedicated to helping clients of all sizes better understand the role AI can/will play in their businesses, and to successfully dive in by building custom, narrow use applications. I spent about 60% of my time in the office learning how to effectively scope the right use-case, how to tackle building brand new computer vision or NLP (natural language processing) applications, and the implications this has on organizational structures – including our own! I also took my first online course through MIT on “Machine Learning and Business, spending six weeks racing toward Tuesday evening homework deadlines, as my global classmates and I worked to apply the AI latest thinking on real world use cases of our own. 

Having space this summer also allowed me to attend some amazing events, like a Retail Tomorrow immersion at Harvard + MIT with nearly 100 curious retail industry leaders across the spectrum, a day at the UN celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing by discussing “moonshots” to solve the 17 UN identified SGD’s (i.e., Sustainable Development Goals), officially adopted by 193 countries. I spent three days at the famed Bretton Woods resort with some brilliant, deeply caring people exploring new economic models and metrics for a quickly shifting and increasingly vulnerable society, as well as the role cryptocurrencies can play in building more resilient communities, and what it takes to shift our behaviors + mindsets in order to take better care of our environmental + ecological world. And then just before my kids went back to school/campus, I tucked in a quick trip to Singularity University to convene and learn with my fellow “expert” faculty peeps, joining a learning group with the esteemed futurist Paul Saffo on cultivating “Exponential Mindsets”. 

What did all this actually teach me? Here’s the quickie recap: 

I. What I’m learning about Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning:

- This is a tool – not a fate. As such, we have the power to decide how to use it. We can tell as many stories of what can go wrong as we can what can go very, very right! While certainly wary of the former, I actively celebrate and look for stories of the latter, such as McKinsey’s recent round-up of 160 current applications making the world a better place … and this is the tippy top of the iceberg ahead. 

- Though we will hit plateaus in what his technology can or cannot do, don't discount its current potency. Transfer learning, deep learning and neural nets, including “generative adversarial networks” (explained as a Spongebob cartoon) are speeding things up. My online MIT course made an analogy to the way DNA sequencing has radically shifted/advanced medicine and bioscience. Similar advances have happened in waves for AI, and we are poised for another. As more curious and ingenious minds enter the field, it's just a matter of time before we unlock the next big insight that will make so many of these seemingly outlandish predictions true. 

- For now, and for most businesses, diving into AI applications often takes a similar stepped path, starting with Data Extraction applications – e.g, how to capture the data on a shopping receipt, turn vaults of paper + PDF contracts into usable digital assets, or accurately classifying patient intake and prescription records to analyze patterns of care – before it progresses to more insightful, predictive applications we can build using this data. This may not seem sexy at times, but it’s not that difficult to imagine the potential available once this data is made visible/usable. 

- AI is still a very human endeavor. Deciding how to segment, container, store and use data is something even the most experienced ML (machine learning) engineers are deciding on a case by case basis, as so many of these applications are being created for the first time ever. And word to the wise, things like inadvertently entering data in backwards can really screw up a sales predictor model. It is also easily fixed. :) 

- Learning is a part of Working. Period. ML engineers need to stay on top of daily advances and contribute to the avalanche of white papers and learning groups created to keep us all in the know. Business leaders need to stay engaged in the questions of organization design, inclusivity and ethics. We all need to develop capacity to try new things and be prepared if they don’t work out the first round or two. And one of the most mind-blowing things to contemplate is that ML, by nature, is a learning tool – not plug and play software. So how do we account for Learning in workflow processes, timesheets, billable hours, salaries, etc? How do you negotiate contracts or rethink “procurement” for software and services? 

- Humility, Openness and Curiosity are some of the most important qualities in both a kickass AI engineer and business leader. It has been awesome to watch this fast growing KUNGFU.AI team of really smart people ask, learn, share, dig in deep and sometimes double back to try again as they figure out something new without an ounce of frustration, shame or even doubt. The answer is out there somewhere…. 

- As is Integrity, clearly. There cannot be a disconnect between what we each believe is the right thing to do and what it is we actually decide to do. In many settings I’ve heard tech executives from both giant and start-up firms say either: “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, but if my competitors do it, we’ll have to as well” or “It’s not up to us to decide how this gets used; it’s up to our customers”. I disagree; and fortunately so do the folks at KUNGFU AI. In all cases, anything we create should clearly signal it’s intended use and come with ethical guidelines. As creators, it’s our responsibility to educate and guide others vs the other way around. 

II. What I’m learning about new structures (and “leadering”): 

- We toss out predictions like “The world of retail will change more in the next 5 years than it has in the last 40” or “Society will change more in the next 20 years than it has in the last 300” to try to get us all to appreciate that the world – and damn near every aspect of it – is shifting, fracturing, reshaping. But what this actually means is that navigating these big changes with outdated mindsets is both naïve and dangerous. Applying old thinking to new technologies, org structures and human systems will ensure we: a) don't harness the potential available to all of us; and b) could amplify poor judgment and exploitative practices in really damaging ways, as Facebook and Uber are teaching us. 

- I have come to see that so many of the structures we put in place to successfully scale and manage vast corporations are now strangling the innovation, agility and sheer humanity needed to grow the resilient, safe, inclusive organizations and partnerships of the future. The list here is long… from often out-of-touch, slow moving Board members, to cultures that incentivize efficiency and consistency rather than innovation and learning. From complex org structures and new departments that debate parental leave vs creating borderless organizations that pull the best talent from anywhere, in any amount. From a fixation with quarterly earnings reports or achieving “unicorn” status, no matter what the start-up does vs the ability to invest in longer term value creation. From a desire to control + centralize all aspects of the business vs learning how to build ecosystems of mutual benefit (and relaxing firewalls to enable collaboration). The point is, we need to rethink which of these practices continue to serve us in this brave new world? Which need to be restructured? And which have totally outlived their usefulness altogether? 

- Gini Rometty (CEO, IBM) and I both believe 100% of today’s workforce will need to be reskilled, in terms of both acumen and mindset. Yet we are increasingly seeing this ain’t so easy to accomplish, even when the training and support are made available. Not everyone is operating from a growth mindset as Dr Carol Dweck (prominent researcher on fixed and growth mindsets) has pointed out. Frighteningly, as the Retail Tomorrow team sat with Harvard professor and leading edge investor, Dan O’Connor, he shared that his research shows that potentially ~38% of the current workforce will be unable to be retrained. That is a huge number! What do we do then? How do we ensure expected increases in tech-fueled productivity are distributed more equitably… even to those unable to “keep up”? And critically, how do we revamp education NOW to ensure we bake this capacity of constant learning into the next generations as early as possible (vs out, as we have for decades)? 

- Just as AI is in its application infancy, so is our imagining of how to better coordinate fast changing work and cultivate bold new ideas, making now the time to dive into this discussion. In our mission to empower successful and thoughtful application of machine learning, KUNGFU.AI just released this report on Building AI Competency, that’s packed with insight on what we see working best for companies that are currently home growing AI programs. 

- As a futurist, I’ll take it a step even further, as we consider how radically different organizations might look down the road: what if titles were abolished, we worked in teams of no more than 20-25 folks, and we all created our own scope of work by considering where we add the most value to any team? These are just some of the ways fast moving, highly responsive companies are experimenting with workflow and running teams. A few years ago Frederic Laloux wrote a thoughtful book on the topic, which he then empathetically turned into an illustrated guide on Reinventing Organizations that one can read in less than a day (whew!). It showcases how twelve pioneering companies are questioning every assumption about how to run a business — abolishing hierarchies, moving to self-managed small teams (even inside large orgs), and putting an emphasis on treating people as whole-hearted humans vs “assets” — in order to boost creativity, engagement and our ability to respond to changing conditions. Developed by Brian Robertson and implemented by companies such as Zappos, Holocracy is a tangible example of this in motion. For more inspiration, you can also watch Ricardo Semler’s TED talk on “How to Run a Company with (almost) no rules”. 

- With this, not surprisingly, comes a discussion on the importance of self-awareness and being able to see your vulnerabilities as gifts as we weave more meaningful work, relationships and global solutions. Just as the team of AI enthusiasts I worked with this summer seemed to do so naturally, how do we each cultivate that spirit of learning, sharing and openness? And how do we create opportunities for learning more not just about a technology or management practice, but about each other … and ourselves? Harvard professor Dr Robert Kegan gets a lot of credit for making this thinking tangible for business leaders as he and his team advocate for creating “deliberately developmental organizations”. 

- Lastly, I want to celebrate the commitment 181 CEOs of the largest corporations made just last week to reorient their businesses to prioritize people over profits; meaning, to consider stakeholder needs (i.e., customers, employees, partners, community and environment) vs only shareholder + investor expectations. THIS IS HUGE. In the days that followed, predictably there was both skepticism and cries that this flies in the face of SEC mandates to protect investors. I’ll argue (quite vigorously if needed) that this is not an either/or but an AND moment. Even if you are not a B-corp, which many more companies may decide to become, taking care of stakeholders ensures you are a much better buy for shareholders, especially long term. Costco is a great example: ranked #4 of the top companies to work for in the US, they consistently beat Earnings Per Share estimates. Even Larry Fink, CEO and Founder of the largest investment firm in the world — managing over $6 trillion dollars — has asserted that companies need to embrace purpose beyond just profit maximization. 

III. What I’m learning about Me: 

- Storytelling matters because the narrative we tell ourselves and others shape our realities. So I seek out stories about those who are navigating these new waters well. It gives me confidence and opens my imagination. Similarly, it also matters the silent stories we carry in our heads about what we can and cannot do. 

- This summer I have been working on my first book, and boy do you learn a lot from a process like this!! As my team and I work to wrangle our wide ranging ideas and observations into relevant, comfortable-to-track content, I’ve been plagued with this question about how to be a meaningful guide while so much is shifting under our feet? What blindspots am I unaware of? How do I stay open to constructive criticism without being then plagued by self-doubt? 

- I confess this bit is not for reassurance or sympathy, but because I think at some level all of us struggle with feeling competent enough as we simultaneously toggle between being a leader + a learner. My experienced friend Chip Conley describes his time at Airbnb as being both mentor + an intern. These frameworks help me normalize this tension I’ve been feeling in being confident what I know is useful, at the same time I’m taking in so much new information and insight. 

- Years ago I told an audience that this moment of radical shift demands radically new solutions… which are only possible by cultivating radically open minds + hearts. Along with inspiration and wonder, I’ve also had some ikky moments of confusion, doubt and frustration — with myself and at how slowly things seem to be moving at times — all of which are pushing me to trust myself and my team, to open myself more to my network, and to have faith in my unique curiosity. I remind myself that none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines and wait for this to play out. We need each brain, heart and pair of hands in there debating, designing and building a future that holds us all well… even as each day we learn more about how to do it better. Few of us have role models as we navigate this tricky landscape, so I turn to what artists, writers, and data scientists demonstrate for us all as they continuously face a blank page with curiosity, faith and guts. 

Now Fall is here, and I am integrating all I’m learning on AI/ML, organizational design and the trust it takes to grow + contribute simultaneously as I hit the road again to start a fresh season of talks. Tomorrow I’ll be addressing 1700 cadets and their professors at the Virginia Military Institute as they dive into an academic year theme “Leading in a Fractured World”. My message is that fracturing can feel unsettling for those who find comfort in the status quo; but it also creates an exciting opportunity to build better, more resilient and inclusive… even transformative solutions. It calls for Action, whether we feel fully ready or not. And that given no-one has all the answers, let’s remember to be compassionate with ourselves and each other as together we navigate this new normal. 

Wishing you all happy learning AND doing! Safe travels… inside and out!