Emerging technology and new innovations are offering crucial opportunities to better align economics to our values. Its idealistic but possible if we adopt a gardener's discipline of attentive daily cultivation - it works for gardens and individuals, communities, companies, portfolios and economies too.
AI from Here
Since 2006 a steady stream of breakthroughs in data capacity and processing power enabled breath-taking improvements in deep learning capabilities. But now, Marcus senses we've hit a plateau, and throwing more data at it doesn't seem to help. AI implementations have a mixed track record:
- Egregious errors when in control of a vehicle
- Non-sensical or toxic advice in conversations
Cem Dilmegani has compiled this very helpful summary of what is sabotaging AI projects - lack of data, lack of the right talent, and lack of collaboration.
I suspect its not that the entire discipline has "hit a wall". Forbes noted in November that a generation of AI startups has failed to deliver value, but also clarified that there are exceptions.
Some practitioners have found ways to apply deep learning in ways that reliably deliver value. Unlike the failure prone "AI for Enterprise" approaches, these practitioners create specific solutions with a clear eyed understanding of what data is actually available to them, carefully iterate via tight cross-disciplinary collaboration, and govern for safety and ethics.
One example is CarePath, the award winning platform and governance framework that empowers data scientists to create high accuracy predictive models for healthcare. CarePath enabled the Healthcare team at Blue Cross NC to take a more streamlined and more effective approach to identifying and caring for members at risk of readmissions - health events that could complicate the recovery after release from the hospital. In 2021 this approach resulted in significant operational cost reductions as well as prevention of medical expenses.
(Disclosure: I am the founder and steward of the Blue Cross NC Innovation Garage, which created CarePath.)
So what then is actually "hitting a wall"?
Maybe what's hitting a wall is the assumption that we can use AI to make things happen without us paying attention - as strongly implied by the common phrase "intelligent automation". That somehow AI can relieve us of the need to be attentive. Maybe this kind of aspiration deserves to hit a wall.
In this twitter conversation Emily Bender highlights just how misguided the ideation of leading AI labs can be. And the replies in Bender's thread go straight to the heart of the matter - values - and how easy it is for all of us to talk about them but how hard it is to actually live by them - especially when building new technology capabilities like AI.
The question to ask
If you are a change leader focused on creating intelligent agents, a great question to ask: Intelligent agents serving whom?
- Serving the tech-elite? - endowing them with armies of intelligent reliable agents sent out into the world to extract profit from every human activity? Replacing and exploiting humans?
- Serving those in need? - as in the case of Blue Cross NC, a not-for-profit serving its members with the stated purpose of "better healthcare for all." In other words, using AI to empower and enhance - not replace - humans.
Being part of the journey that resulted in the CarePath platform taught me just how much the AI space requires you to pay more attention not less. (More about this skill of attentive cultivation in Nature Notes below - the segment titled "On Gardening.")
How Innovation impacts economics and values
Emerging technology and new innovations - can offer crucial opportunities to better align economics to our values. The pattern of history seems to be:
- People live under a status quo of economic assumptions that don’t align to their values, believing (or being told to believe) that there is no other way.
- Once in a while, something disrupts that status quo.
We are long overdue for a similar disruption. Today's emerging innovations are starting to give us clarity that there actually are better ways and that our economics can actually support our values rather than work against them.
This seems especially true where we are learning about how we can use technologies like AI, Blockchain and Cloud in combination and enable new capabilities and options we didn't have before.
The hard part is doing the work required to drive the change - design and build the new approach, show others what you are doing, and harness the skeptics and resisters to help you learn and work out the bugs.
Never easy, and always takes longer than it should, but its how good things come into this world.
Finance: Addressing Inequality
As this Pew Research piece indicates, economic inequality has been rising at alarming rates in the US, with lower and middle incomes decreasing vs upper incomes as shown in their graph here:
As I've noted here previously, I believe one of the best things we can do to help financial equality is to help people not only prepare for and get good jobs, but also learn how to own and grow capital. That's why I'm intrigued by the ideas in the next segment on Baby Bonds.
Thanks to economist Darrick Hamilton, Baby Bonds are being increasingly considered by US states as a practical way to address equity gaps. The Urban Institute chart below (from their excellent explainer on Baby Bonds) compares the challenges faced by different groups.
The Baby Bonds concept is simple: at birth start an investment process that provides for a financial base when the person enters adult hood. Enable this specifically for individuals whose families will be unable to provide this for them.
Connecticut is the first state in the nation to adopt the concept - here are the key points of their implementation:
- $3200 deposited in a fund at birth for participants in HUSKY, Connecticut's Medicaid and CHIPs program.
- Beneficiaries can access the funds between ages 18-30.
- Funds can be used only for specified purposes: start a business in Connecticut, buy a home in Connecticut, pay for education, or save for retirement.
You may think of gardening as just a hobby for those who are slowing down in life, but you could also think of it differently. Gardening involves a discipline that is core to just about every kind of success: the discipline of daily attentive cultivation. There is no substitute for this kind of discipline: The discipline of daily attentive cultivation is what makes individuals, families, businesses, portfolios and economies grow and thrive. It even applies to cultivating habits.
More gardening thoughts:
- Texas A&M's lengthy list of benefits of gardening for individuals and communities, with references to supporting research for each.
- Cultivate Your Well Being Seed by Seed article by Margaret Roach.
- Dr Sue Stuart-Smith's book, The Well Gardened Mind
Remembering Chandler Robbins
This is past week marked the anniversary of the passing of Chandler Robbins, a giant of ornithology, creator of the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the author of the original and much loved bird guide Birds of North America. Robbins was a colleague of Rachel Carson, and one of the first researchers to pay attention to concerns about DDT. Bird Calls Radio has a legacy interview with Robbins here.
Robbins was also the ornithologist who in 1956 banded a female Laysan Albatross who came to be known as Wisdom. Banding (placing a small lightweight ID band around the leg of a bird) allows ornithologist to track individual birds and better understand their migratory movements and lifespans. Wisdom's lifespan has been extraordinary: She returned once again to her nesting grounds in December 2021 presumably to hatch another chick, now in her 70th year.
Listening for the Travelers in the Sky
When birds migrate they usually fly at night, taking off just after sundown and flying until just before sunrise. As they fly, they call - presumably to each other as a way to stay in touch.
Nocturnal calls of migrating birds are different from the calls and songs we hear from them during the day. Bill Evans and Michael O’Brien spent years innovating ways to figure out what sounds were coming from what birds, and created a library of migratory bird calls identified by species. For a long time, this collection called the Flight Calls of Migratory Birds was only available on CD, but now the entire library of recordings and information is available online here!
In spring, birds migrate on nights when the wind is from the south, and the weather isn't too chilly. On such nights these amazing travelers will be moving unseen through the darkness overhead by the millions. I hope you can find a quiet spot under the stars and listen for them. With the help of the Flight Calls library, you may be able to identify some of them. :)
Final Note: 8 Ways To Have a Better Day
This week, March 28 will be my Dad's birthday. He passed in 2007. At his funeral, a former team member of his came up to me. "Your Dad used to be my boss, and he was the best boss ever," he said, and then proceeded to show me a little paper which had advice my Dad had shared with the team. It was titled simply "How to Have a Better Day" and it listed the 8 encouragements you see below.
Opinions mine. Not financial advice. I may hold assets discussed.