Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Singularity, Schmingularity

There are those who insist that by 2045 we will have  achieved the Singularity: Artificial Intelligence will have surpassed our own. This may be the case, but then again it may not be. In the 1960s there were those who thought they could crack AI in one summer.

What’s interesting about the AI debate is… well, a lot. But one thing I find curious is that although it is still a debate, the way we are designing and building products and services seems to be tacitly assuming that it is, in fact, going to happen, and that it will happen relatively soon, and most of all that it will be a good thing. I wonder whether we might be missing out on a whole lot of opportunities by thinking this way.

Look at the services that are most often used these days – their promise tends to be one of ever-increasing relevance, of learning about us and catering to our needs before we’re even aware that we have them, of bringing is only what we desire and love. The reality is that in most cases, the better a service ‘knows’ me and the more ‘relevant’ its recommendations become, the smaller my world becomes. This is true across many domains – media, music, fashion, even who to follow on twitter. But we know that one of the great joys is that of discovery – stumbling across something you’ve never heard of before, that might be very different from what you’re used to, but that you love. And that thing, whatever it is, opens a window into another world.

In the real world, one way we do this is through conversation. A friend of mine is fond of saying that while we may share the same space from time to time, every one of us carries our own discrete reality with us. This is where miscommunications and misunderstandings come from (a lack of understanding of subtext) and also the reason why conversation can be such an extraordinary thing. When we have good conversations with others, they open a window into their reality. It’s part of the human condition that we understand ourselves better in contrast to what’s around us – the me/not me dichotomy. It follows that good, meaty, substantive conversations help us to hone our sense of self, our opinions, our thoughts, in a way that little else can.

So why don’t we spend more of our time and energy focussing on the conversation and less on filtering, relevance, messaging? It’s partly because there’s no real business model for monetizing conversation. I don’t have to pay to have a conversation with someone in a bar or on the street, so why should I pay to have one online? What we do pay for is things that enhance these conversations – food and drink, books and magazines, tickets to events and conferences that provide us with access to new people and/or ideas.  We also pay to watch other people have conversations – on television, in films. Storytelling is core to the human experience, and what is conversation if not a story that tells itself as it goes?

I’ve been saying for a while that businesses need to stop thinking about entities like Facebook and Twitter as “channels” and start paying attention to what people are actually saying. The conversation I have over dinner isn’t a medium, and I certainly wouldn’t want some stranger coming along in the middle of it and telling me about a car or dress or whatever he’s selling. I’d ignore him. But if a stranger, or a group of strangers, were to pay to listen in on my conversation over dinner (only with my explicit knowledge and consent, mind!), then they might learn a lot about what we think – about things that they don’t care about, and things they do. What we think about cars, and driving, and real estate prices, and hipsters, and food. Twitter and Facebook are essentially massive public conversations that anyone can listen into for free. And, presumably, a lot of brands and businesses do.

The leap is in what they do about what they hear. Years ago, a designer and I created a comic to show what’s wrong with a lot of brands these days. It depicted the brand as a Man In Black listening in on the conversation at a party to which he was not invited. When he heard a trigger word, he came in brandishing a pistol and a megaphone to deliver his message. It was funny, but it was also more or less true – businesses claim to want to cultivate relationships with their customers, but more often they just shout their messaging and then wonder why they don’t get the response they’d hoped for.

Not a whole lot has changed since then. Business still thinks in linear ways, which is probably why we are heading on a linear path toward the singularity, whether or not that actually is on the horizon or is a good thing. We need to get off the conveyor belt and strike out into new territory.

I’m not saying the singularity isn’t going to happen – it might or it might not. But in the meantime, surely we should be exploring what we can do with technology to enhance the experience of being human rather than to put ourselves in ill-fitting boxes? Businesses need to adjust their strategies from tactical to-do lists to frameworks for evaluating opportunities. Then they can look at the vast and beautiful global human conversation and see it for what it is – a wellspring of ideas for making people’s lives just a little bit better.