Dispelling the AI myths

Your human-ness is what we need in the age of AI, write Darren Levy and Alex Hanlon.

The first myth is that  AI is a disruptive new technology.

Like most successful over night technology wonders, artificial intelligence has been with us for quite some time. First coined at a summer conference at the Dartmouth College in 1956, the term artificial intelligence described an intelligence which “in principle can be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it1”. This suposition was based on work that was in part founded on Alan Turing’s work on computing machines which dates back to 1936.

The development of a variety of technologies used in AI today continued around the world, but perhaps the moment when it was born in the public eye came when the IBM computer Deep Blue, beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997.

In his book Deep Thinking after winning the first game, Kasparov (who had beaten three earlier Deep Blue programmes) recognising how the programme had improved said: “This Deep Blue was a worthy opponent.”

Perhaps when we consider how long AI has actually been around us, we are able to feel less overwhelmed by its “overnight arrival”.

It’s all about culture.

Harvard Business School’s research on When Growth Stalls found that 87 percent of the reasons why an organisation may stall actually comes from within.  

When we say that tech like AI is disrupting our organisation, what we are really saying is… that we are not ready or willing to make the changes we need to make in this rapidly changing environment. 

Brands like Google, Uber and Netflix seemed to appear overnight, but that just isn’t true. Netflix began its mail order DVD service in 1997 and then launched the streaming service in 2007. Famously Blockbuster video had the opportunity to acquire Netflix for US$50m in 2000 but declined the offer. The reason why they didn’t? At the time Netflix was losing money (yet growing rapidly) and they felt streaming content would only ever be a niche offering.

In reality this is a moment where a culture of complacency can lead organisations to miss the opportunities that technology provides. 

What can you do about this type of behaviour? 

Human Synergistics research shows that more constructive and effective cultures are 32 percent more likely to be adaptive to external shifts such as AI and disruptive tech. What should you focus on to improve your culture in the age of AI? 

1. Ensure there is a clearly articulated human-centred purpose at all levels.

2. Appropriate influence at the right levels and employees who are involved and empowered to do their best work.

3. Seamless clear communication, goal setting and human resource practices.

4. Jobs that are designed to have autonomy, variety, encourage you to work with others constructively, see something from start to finish and are meaningful.

5. Constructive leadership that helps team members to solve problems, improve relationships and treat others with respect and consider the diverse needs of the team/organisation.


Myth #2: AI will take all our jobs

The inaugural Stanford University AI Index2  identifes a nine times increase in the number of academic research papers since 1996, a six times increase in venture capital investments in the USA market and a 14 times increase in the number of AI start-ups since 2000. 

The study also identifies significant growth in the number of jobs and skills that require AI skills. Today’s smartphones all contain an AI virtual assistant and seach agent, we are purchasing Alexa and Google Home to cue music, make shopping lists and turn lights on and off in our homes. 

AI’s inform our online shopping habits, tell us where the traffic is on Google maps, group faces together on Facebook, and crunch data accross an increasing number of industry sectors.

But for all the AI’s that are working for us, there are quite a few that haven’t always worked. Amazon’s Alexa was responsible for ordering a KidKraft Sparkle Mansion dollhouse and 1.8kg biscuits at the behest of a six year old girl, after she had told Alexa how much she liked dollhouses and cookies. To make matters worse a San Diego W-6 TV anchor reporting on the story said live on air “Alexa order me a dollhouse” which in turn caused Alexa Echoes in viewers homes to also order dollhouses. 

Microsoft’s Tay – intended as a Twitter Chatbot for casual conversation, launched in March 2016, tweeted more than  96,000 times within 24 hours and was retired after the twitterverse trained it to be a misogynist, racist neo-nazi.

Over in Hamburg Germany one night in November 2017 while its owners were out, Amazon’s Alexa began playing music loudly at 1:50am. Neighbours called the police to shut down the party, upon arrival they broke down the front door and unplugged the device.

Right now there are very few places where AI is all coming together and poised to takeover. The market is accelerating but it’s not yet overwhelming human employment, it’s actually a great time to get on board.

AI is essentially still a tool box of code. It is the “calculator” of Industry 4.0, an essential tool to accelerate our learning and how we work. Like the calculator, AI is starting to be very helpful at specific work tasks. This changes the capacity of individuals and teams allowing the humans to move onto higher value work. 

Alongside a growth mindset to experimenting with AI we also need to focus on how we support and communicate with our people during these potentially unsettling times.

Leaders need to be managers of meaning and sense-makers and with the hype and scaremongering that robots will take your jobs this is even more important today than ever before.

Human Synergistics research shows that the skills and qualities of leaders are most highly correlated with effective and supportive organisational cultures. This won’t be a surprise but what we know versus what we do is often very different.

There are many ways to improve your leadership capability but here are our top four to help your team make sense of AI or automation:

1. Clarity: Help your people to cut through the noise of robots eating their jobs. Inspire them with focus and support them to achieve their goals. Think PBIs (personal best indicators) over generic KPIs.

2. Be human: Authenticity is a mandatory requirement of effective leadership. Now more than ever the value of being human and real is crucial. We need to be open and be our best self at work, which will in turn encourage others to do the same.

3. Growth: Encourage, support and challenge yourself and others to be their best. If automation is going to affect jobs, discuss this openly and find ways to develop skills and experience in your people so they can deliver outcomes that AI or robots can’t.

4. Trust: We value relationships as they help us to deliver better results and feel more satisfied at the end of the week. We don’t always trust technology but we do need to trust our leader and our colleagues. Make sure you take interest in your team’s work, do what you say you will do and focus on ‘we’ rather than ‘me’.

So the time is now, human beings are the most adaptive of all the species. We have created AI and now we are poised and ready to start to incorporate it into our working lives. 

We have agency in this endeavour and it’s up us to make informed choices about where AI can assist us and where the human touch should, and must, be retained in order to deliver value to our customers and our communities.   M


Darren Levy is a senior consultant at Human Synergistics and consults to a broad range of organisations across Asia Pacific, with a focus on leadership, culture, innovation and change.
Alex Hanlon is the director of learning resources at the University of Canterbury. She specialises in digital disruption, coaching new technology adoption and agile leadership methods for tertiary education.


1  Quote from unpublished proposal in 1955, more recently published AI Magazine Volume 27 Number 4 (2006) 

2  Published in 2017 Retrieved from: https://aiindex.org/#report

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