Fixer: How can we inspire staff to live our values?

25 Jul 2017 By Robert Jeffery

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s book is long and complex – but important

Andrew McAfee & Erik Brynjolfsson, W W Norton, £22.99/£13.29 e-book

You may have noticed that AI is having a profound effect on business. You may also have wondered exactly what AI is, given that most of us have rarely seen it in action. Fortunately, McAfee and Brynjolfsson – the academics behind the groundbreaking The Second Machine Age – share your sense of wonder. And they have the answers.

Machine, Platform, Crowd – named after the three forces reinventing both the economy and the nature of human interaction – opens with a reality check. Despite the hype, and the vast computing power foretold by Moore’s Law, machines cannot mimic human intuition or common sense, since we ourselves do not understand these concepts.

But that’s scant consolation, since AI will soon be able to do everything else so well that huge companies do not need to own the things they produce any more (Facebook, for instance, is an algorithm that produces none of its own content). And machines already do our admin and are better than us at making situational judgements.

The authors believe AI will soon strip away what remains of the back office and after that will start listening to and understanding our customers. At that point, the role of humans changes profoundly. The authors explain the whys and hows soberly, answering just about every question on AI you could ask: which channels it will colonise next, whether we’ll still need physical products in a virtual world and how bitcoin will change commerce, among others.

Throughout, they are eloquent and informed. They don’t think humans will be obsolete, but they also don’t pretend the solutions are simple. This is a long and complex book, but it is important. And it ends on an optimistic note: AI won’t kill the idea of the organisation itself because it plays a more important role in society than a computer ever could.

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