The Eel and The Discipline of Small Steps

Have you ever tried to hold on to a live eel? You’ll hardly ever succeed. I grew up in Northern Germany at the Steinhuder Meer, and there are eels there. With my school class, I went to an eel smokehouse once, and we were allowed to try to hold an eel. It slips through your fingers. Nobody could hold it for more than a few seconds.

Sometimes it seems to me that the business value of a new technical solution is like an eel. You’ve invested millions in new software or services, and in the end you’re not sure whether this investment has delivered measurable added value for your own company. This seems to be a trend across all industries, but especially in modern IT such as cloud computing, IT departments have a hard time. Vendors are reacting with new roles such as Customer Success Manager. A search on LinkedIn for this job title yields 65,671 hits today. These people help customers to realize the added value of a solution.

In an ideal world, a product delivers its business value after installation and everyone is happy. But the world is not ideal. Especially solutions that involve change of operational processes, that are supposed to deliver particularly high added value, require a change in user behavior. That starts at the Apple Retail Store, where you can get a demonstration of how to make the transition to Apple products work. But this is even more true in large companies. This is often referred to as operational transformation, the change in IT operations.

That’s why I’m a big fan of small steps: Think big and start small. If the value of a great idea is visible in a first implementation after a short time, then the IT manager can provide management with more reliable predictions about future business value.

Look for a concrete use case that is close to the business. Define how you want to measure success. Pay special attention to how you want to measure the success of a business transformation. And don’t wait too long until the first milestone is reached.

When there is a special relationship of trust between customer and supplier, sometimes very large projects are initiated and new investments are made before the previous project has delivered measurable business value. This can work, but in the long run it is a risk for both sides. Think about the discipline of small steps.

An AI Playground

This week I was invited to the official opening ceremony of the ARIC (Artificial Intelligence Center) Hamburg. The ARIC brings together companies, start-ups, research institutes, banks and politics to initiate AI-based projects and establish AI solutions on the market. Besides good conversations, I experienced interesting presentations introducing AI projects.

A very large established finance company uses AI in two ways. There are short-term (in 1 to 3 years duration) projects in which modern applications and new user interfaces are developed. In the long term, in cooperation with ARIC, completely new business areas are tackled and the old processes are fundamentally improved, e.g. in the analysis of legal documents.

A communications company presented how they use AI to evaluate and optimize the efficiency and reach of marketing methods. A consulting firm showed how AI in image analysis can be used to categorize defects in aircraft engines much faster.

There are many ideas on how AI can drive new business, and yet it seemed a bit like a playground to me. This is not meant negatively. It’s about playful experimentation. There will be many more experiments to try. And it’s about starting on a small scale and proving the value of AI solutions, as I wrote earlier.

The more AI-based business models work, the more new ideas are coming up. I can imagine that AI will become much more interesting for many companies. And faster than you might think.

Truly Intelligent Machines

The definition of artificial intelligence can be vague. Sometimes it seems to be just brute force number crunching. There, more and more computing power is used to create a behavior that seems to show intelligence. But if we look behind the scenes of Deep Blue and other supercomputers that master games like chess or go, these are special cases where knowledge is optimized in a clearly defined area.

Human intelligence is much more creative and adaptable. It is prepared for every eventuality in our lives, much more than any computer.

And this is exactly where the 15-year-old classic by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee comes in: “On Intelligence” is a book in which we learn in great detail how the human brain works, how the neocortex is structured, how we use it to remember things, and how we make decisions. And it is precisely this biological template that the authors use to give us clues as to how to build truly intelligent computers.

A colleague and friend recommended this book to me, and I can only pass on this recommendation. Even if the predictions of 15 years ago did not really come true, it is still an enlightening reading.

“The most powerful things are simple,” Jeff writes in the prologue. He’s right, you might just think of the iPhone. So this book presents a simple and straightforward theory of intelligence. It is very profound when the individual cells and cell regions in the brain are explained how they interact and how information is stored and retrieved. Yes, you should concentrate while reading, but is it also understandable for non-neuro-scientists.

Now, if a machine uses this behaviour of the human brain, then it is really intelligent. Jeff assumes in this book that in 10 years (that would be 2015) such intelligent machines will exist. But in the next sentence he gets more cautious because it might take longer.

Jeff calls for the construction of such machines, which have the human neocortex of the brain as a model. In the book there are some examples, e.g. how such machines communicate and capture the world’s weather in a level of detail that seems impossible today. Do we really want that? I’m not sure that’s a good idea. And I haven’t heard anything more about such machines.

Anyway, I recommend the book “On Intelligence” to anyone interested in intelligent computers. You’ll have more respect for your brain after reading it.