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Eating Innovation (a Cautionary Tale)

I was clearly in a strange country but all the doubts and perplexities which strewed my mind could not stop me from feeling happy and heart-light and full of an appetite for going about my business and finding the hiding-place of the black box.

– From, The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

Generative AI has taken up all the air in the room.

ChatGpt is dominating the headlines.

Fed into the maw of progress, AI spits out more innovation.

We, in turn, are fed constant news of the latest developments.

We’re consuming it all the time.

A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal brought a new angle to this obsession. It seems more corporate boards are forming committees to oversee all things science, tech, and innovation. Technology is racing ahead so rapidly that boards are pressing their companies to become more purposeful about innovation, seeking out a process that will generate impactful ideas.

According to Dr. Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, in her new book, Think Bigger: How to Innovate, group brainstorming is one approach to generating new ideas, but it’s not enough. It’s important to foray beyond internal echo chambers and group-think to discover new realms.

If Dr. Iyengar is correct, creativity is central to the process. When seeking solutions to various challenges, discussions should extend beyond a company’s own industry and take in learnings from other industries as well as diverse examples from aspects of history. In this way:

… ideas are graded based on how well they match up with the goals of the subject company, as well as customers, allies and gatekeepers, such as regulators. The goal is to get people out of their comfort zones and manage or reduce the effects of cognitive bias, according to Dr. Iyengar, who said the system draws on findings from cognitive and neuroscience research. It’s an alternative to other approaches, in which people might simply offer ideas and vote on them.

Dr. Iyengar suggests that, “… to be more creative, you have to go beyond the experience of those in the room—you must go to the rest of the world and beyond time,’ to encompass lessons from history…. The book prompts readers to ask, ‘Who else has solved an analogous problem, and what did they do?’”

The Third Wave...

It seems Steve Case was right – in his 2016 book, The Third Wave, he suggested innovation would soon be infused into the economy like never before as more and more tech start-ups change entire industries with new tools and capabilities (I made mention of Case’s book in a presentation in Montego Bay earlier this month of May, 2023).

And the contact center and the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry are being impacted in significant ways.

Both are taking the technological innovations of tech startups like OpenAI and implementing them in their operations in a process of adaptation.

The following quote from a BPO veteran which I deployed in a 2021 blog aligns nicely with what’s happening as generative AI is fed into the BPO ecosystem today:

I’ve often marveled that BPOs serve as the lab or petri dish for where a lot of good old-fashioned breaking-things-innovation continues to happen, or they should be. Good ideas would not propagate nearly as fast in any one industry, let along across industries, without the secondary market function which BPO facilitates. When you add the computational effect of layers of AI tools to this, it is absolutely gobsmacking to witness the speed of iteration of knowledge being experienced right now.

Well said. Still, the question must be asked – since most of the generative AI-enabled chatbots are running off the same technology, won’t they almost certainly become a commodity? Like eating potato chips. They will be customized based on need and context of course, but that’s something altogether different than actually developing a differentiated tech product that is unique.

It seems our mythical quest for ever more innovation at some point results in homogeneity, a certain kind of “one-size-fits-all.”

Big Macs for everyone.

What to do then?

The message is clear… chew on more ideas, spit out more innovation.

From The Third Wave to The Third Policeman...

Speaking of gobsmacking, I was on a virtual happy hour recently with industry colleagues Loren Moss, William Carson, and Dom Pannell when, about an hour in, Loren started talking about particle physics (how “ghost particles” came up in conversation remains a mystery).

As I sipped my Sam Adams, the effect of Loren (based in Colombia), delving into particle physics while an Irishman in London nodded along via Zoom (William originally hails from Derry) immediately sparked a wild bit of free association – I recalled that the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien was deeply interested in physics; he even seems to have predicted everything from string theory to parallel universes in his absurdist comic (innovative!) novel The Third Policeman.

No, really. At one point in the novel there’s even a scene that seems to anticipate Moore’s Law decades before it emerged in the mid-1960s. Moore's Law postulated that the number of transistors that can be packed into a given unit of space on a microchip will double every two years or so, increasing the speed and capability of computers while halving their cost (in 2005, Moore himself claimed that the process cannot go on indefinitely, that transistors eventually would reach the limits of miniaturization at atomic levels).

I’ve no idea if Gordon Moore ever read The Third Policeman, but he would probably have smiled in recognition when:

In one extraordinary scene, the narrator pays a visit to one of the local policemen, MacCruiskeen. Apparently a carpenter by hobby, MacCruiskeen produces for his visitor a little wooden chest; it is ‘beautifully wrought,’ with ‘the dignity and satisfying quality of true art.’ He opens the chest, revealing a slightly smaller replica inside. He takes this second one out and opens it. Sure enough, it contains a third, even smaller chest. He opens that one; a smaller chest comes out…. But as MacCruiskeen’s chests become ever punier, eventually reaching submicroscopic, even subatomic levels of littleness, the narrator grows proportionately uneasy.

When I reread the book last week, the narrator’s unease reminded me of Yuval Noah Harari’s concerns about our almost manic pursuit of technological progress in his book Sapiens. And suddenly, Flann O’Brien’s narrator seemed to me like a representative of our species, a figure right out of Sapiens, chasing progress with a compulsion that's hard to stop.

At one point in his quest, O'Brien's narrator walks through a surreal, perfectly efficient environment that upon rereading immediately made me think of a future metaverse:

I seemed to have reached regions which I had never seen before…. My surroundings had a strangeness of a peculiar kind, entirely separate from the mere strangeness of a country where one has never been before. Everything seemed almost too pleasant, too perfect, too finely made.… afterwards I could revisit this mysterious townland upon my bicycle and probe at my leisure the reasons for all its strangenesses. I got down from the stile and continued my walk along the road. It was pleasant easeful walking. I felt sure I was not going against the road. It was, so to speak, accompanying me.

Along the Yellow Brick Road...

Have you ever felt, these past months, a certain concern in the face of the speed and relentlessness with which AI has overtaken the conversation in our society? Walking down the path of AI seems pleasant enough, but at what point will the road change into something so strange that it’s accompanying us rather than serving to secure the ground beneath our feet?

We’re in a race to offer endlessly efficient solutions to just about everything. If we’re honest with one another, the frantic nature of it all can sometimes seem a bit crazy, we can all feel a bit like Dorothy caught in a tornado (and Toto too)… our situation can even resemble an absurdist novel by Flann O’Brien that’s both funny and sad at the same time.

At one point in The Third Policeman, the narrator takes note of an odd detail in his perfectly strange surroundings: “A company of crows came out of a tree when I was watching and flew sadly down to a field where there was a quantity of sheep attired in fine overcoats.”

It’s another comically absurd image. But it bothered me in a strange way. Why are the crows sad? How does the narrator know they are sad? Is the narrator's own secret sadness impacting his perception of the crows?

Why are the sheep in fine overcoats?

Eventually, it's all too much for the narrator, his compulsive pursuit is all too absurd. Later in the novel, when the narrator must abandon a precious, magical bag that he’s convinced will solve all his problems, he finally breaks down:

A large emotion came swelling against my throat and filling my mind with great sorrow and a sadness more remote and desolate than a great strand at evening with the sea far away at its distant turn. Looking down with a bent head at my broken shoes, I saw them swim and dissolve in big tears that came bursting on my eyes. I turned to the wall and gave loud choking sobs and broke down completely and cried loudly like a baby.

A commentator in The Irish Times explains that scene perfectly:

… what makes the scene great is the weeping in the lift. At this point the language, hitherto scrupulously sober, concise and flat, suddenly becomes expansive and lyrical (that ‘great strand at evening with the sea far away’) so that we are made to feel personally the anguish, realising that we are equally desirous, deluded and absurd. We laugh too of course – but the laughter is complex and troubling. This is the comedy not of superiority but of empathy.

Flann O’Brien finished The Third Policeman in 1940. But he couldn’t get it published, so he put it in a drawer and told friends at the pub that he’d lost it. Most believe he’d lost hope that anyone would publish it. But critic Hugh Kenner sees another possibility – O’Brien was so unnerved by what he’d written that he couldn’t bear to see it in print.

After O’Brien died in 1966, at age 54, his widow fished the manuscript out of that drawer and sent it to a publisher. It was finally published in 1967.

I can’t help but wonder if our happy and compulsive pursuit of a mythical black box in the form of AI, our quest for perfection and efficiency (somewhat absurdly catalyzed by the sorrows of a global pandemic), might mean that mental health will be one of our greatest concerns this decade.

Let’s make our organizations more efficient... by all means let’s keep pursuing innovation… but let’s not go crazy in the process.

As we keep eating innovation, let’s make sure we’re not consumed by it.

Let’s watch out for each other... let’s remember the human element in everything we do.

Image credit: from (print by Armando Veve, 2017, Commissioned by Dublin-based Hen's Teeth Prints to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Flann’s O Brien’s “The Third Policeman”)

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