Help! My boss is an Algorithm

One of the benefits of living in London is the opportunity to listen to big ideas first hand. This month I was lucky enough to snap up a ticket to see Dr Yuval Noah Harari in conversation with Kamal Ahmed of the BBC. Harari is the author of bestselling book “Homo Sapiens”.

Harari invites us to think about the future of the human race. In his lecture, he explained that because humans are able to unlock the secrets of our biology and create machines that can think faster and more efficiently than we do, the human race is fast approaching a sense of divine status or "Homo Deus".

Critically for my own work, Harari explores the way that new technologies are changing the identity and function of companies. For example, Google's parent company Alphabet is a B2C technology company, life science and artificial intelligence (AI) company. In fact, your web browser is not just helping you to find things out it’s also unlocking the secrets of your biology and building machines that are changing our world.

Google's Deepmind recently won an Innovation Cannes Lion Award for its research into AlphaGo, a computing system that beat the best human player at the ancient Chinese game "Go". Whilst it may seem harmless for an AI to beat a human mind at a game, it is only one application out of millions that an AI can achieve.

As humans create machines that can achieve bigger and better things, companies are becoming more complex. These leaps in capability are leading us to endless possibilities and new communication challenges. My own work is an invitation to think about the purpose of businesses. Why do they exist? What do they set out to do? How do they make the world a better place? In an age where businesses are increasingly becoming more complex, their purposes are also becoming harder to define.

Harari has said that technology is not, in itself, deterministic and he believes that companies of the future will need to hire less programmers and more moral philosophers. For example, what will happen when Uber fully adopts driverless cars and a passenger pick up system that is run entirely by an algorithm? What will happen when your e-reader is reading you as much as you are reading it? Imagine your biological data being fed back into a system that can then use this information to create books that will make you laugh or cry more. Utilising this data is not a simple path of progress. The more data companies collect, the more responsibility they have.

The Financial Times recently published a fascinating article exploring the way Uber and Deliveroo manage their workers via their mobile phones. This digital economy is run by AI's, which task temporary workers to provide consumers with cheaper and faster service. You may have also seen Amazon's air drone delivery system. But what happens when robots and their machine minds are delivering the goods and the consumers don’t even need to place an order by themselves?

If I'm posing many questions it's because there are many to be answered. The new world Harari describes is both fascinating and terrifying. My own thoughts selfishly drifted towards the end of the lecture as to what will happen if an AI is able to do my job better than I can. What if my own boss is no longer even human!

These are not only questions to be confronted by academics but by all of us. Communicating these rapid changes in technology will be absolutely critical to making sure that people understand both the consequences and the possibilities of our new “Home Deus” status.  

Alex Burley

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search