Organism Omnivore

5429335563_ebe9be20dcCompanies are like living organisms.

They learn, evolve and eventually die in 13 years, plus or minus 5.

They consume sales, and excrete costs.

They are omnivores.  The more sales a company consumes than costs it excretes, the more it grows.

Yet most companies operate like machines that walk at right angles, with one foot stuck in the tar pit of analog.  In the industrial era, a business was like a clock with a long and short hand, devised by engineers and pencil-pushed by accountants for maximum productivity; every worker was an undifferentiated cog and wheel, interchangeable, disposable.

This machine-view of business operations prevailed because smokestack industries were stable, predictable; the most valuable assets were hard and fixed; electrical plants, factories, work-in-progress inventory, and finance capital. Deprioritizing humanity for the sake of optimizing profit was considered good business judgment, because human bonds were too fragile.  Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead popularized the notion of companies being the birthright of clever individuals atop a pyramid of workers who did their bidding.  Thus, management people were the brains and relationships were secondary.

But in this new digital ecosystem, the business world is a vast, murky and clandestine rainforest, where machines constantly bump into things, spin uncontrollably, rust and malfunction.  Henry Ford, a pioneer of the mass-market automobile industry, once said  “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”  As a monopoly car manufacturer, such arrogance by Ford was pardonable, but today’s customers want personalized experiences and different products and services every day.

In order for a business to survive threat of extinction, companies have to create a new nervous system, and high performance infrastructure.  It must be responsive to environmental changes as a living thing would; and protect crucial nerve endings from getting damaged and paralyzed.  For example, if you are in a cold environment and you don’t know; you are dead.  This is an advantage living organisms have over machines.  Machines don’t know they are dead.  In my experience, the business’ nervous system can be destroyed by miscommunication and conflict, if there is no understanding of self and management.

Thus, a knowledge system that is distributed throughout all the employees must be restored, where continuous p2p learning about one’s environment is the aim.  This process is not mechanical; learning is creative, fluid, soft, messy and magical.  And the power of digital is that it automates the mundane and frees up bandwidth to do more learning.  Employees can be then redeployed to think,  strategize, learn and see into the future.

As a result, companies need to invest in connectedness both internally and externally.   And move away from centralizing digital like it is another cog and wheel.  Evolutionary biology defines an organism as a body composed of different pieces that coordinate well for a common purpose.  Organisms have self-control and derive power from within.  In his book, “Living Company”, Arie De Geus argued that as a living organism organization’s first loyalty is not to any individual or crowned figurehead, but to its existence, growth and factors that extend its longevity.

A living company is a connected company.

A connected company operates as a band of self-directed pods that are supported by platforms and connected by common purpose, not by fear of a supervisor. Amazon and Google are great examples of the open, living, connected company.  They disperse digital staff across key departments, with change agents that lead key initiatives, set up processes, and synthesize the dots while empowering others to lead.  They see companies as a complex ecosystem of connections and potential connections.  Here is the survival kit for a living company:

  • Living companies have to encourage creative binging.  E.g. Google used to give its workers 20% of time to do side projects which produced Adsense and Gmail.
  • Living companies have to have a strong, unified culture.  See sustained superior performance of Proctor & Gamble, Zappos, Netflix, because of the importance of culture.
  • Living companies have to be self-aware and in touch with the world around them constantly on the prowl for new opportunities.  E.g. Google investing in self-driving cars and home automation(Nest).  Facebook investing in virtual reality (Oculus)…

As we move towards the next wave of digital disruption, customers will be more and more connected with each other on mobile, social and the cloud.  A successful company must adapt, reinvent its product and services and connect with customers. The best way to do that is as a living company not a dead machine.

F(x)=Singularity + 1

When I took calculus in high school, studying derivatives and limits, I experienced ‘Singularity’ before I even knew what it meant.

I typed 1 divided 0 into my T180 graphing calculator and the word “ERROR”  appeared.  This handheld computer that only took numbers 0 through 9 as its inputs, for the first time talked back to me in English letters.

How did it know how to speak English?  And why speak now? Was it trying to tell me something?  A warning? What was it about the function,   f(x)=1/x, that it did not like?

Then I learned after graphing the function when x=0, that the lines curve away from 0 as they approach 0, exploding and undefined at 0.

Instead, they approach positive/negative infinity, which in layman’s terms is a number we can’t comprehend.  It is so large, beastly, and non-computational.  Like conceptualizing the universe at a subatomic scale that forever expands out from a dot, we can leverage the grace of equations to define it, but we can’t describe what it means to our lives. Not in a practical sense.

Thus in math, singularity is the point in the equation that blows up, becomes degenerate.

In 1993, science fiction writer and computer scientist, Vernor Vinge, introduced the defining notion of technological ‘Singularity’ as an inflection point in human evolution where artificial intelligence (ironically that which man creates) surpasses human intelligence.  But his conclusion does not end so well for humans.

On the other hand, Ray Kurzweil, head Google engineer and prophet of the trans-humanist movement, takes a more upbeat tone.  For him the ‘Singularity’ is the year 2045 when man merges with machine so he can keep up with the rate that intelligence is accelerating; with the possibility of extending his life, dangling the keys of immortality.

What does that inflection point in 2045 look like? Is it falling in love with our operating systems?

Some postulate it will be a rapture of nerds huddled around a big TV screen waiting in a Kool-Aid line to upload their consciousness to the machine, a monolithic server, where they can live forever, replicating their being across the planet.  Downloading into new hardware where needed.  Don’t laugh.

When I was in grad school, I got burnt out.   As an outlet, I started watching the Battlestar Galactica series , a space-opera about post-singularity.  I got so addicted it almost wrecked my life.  I gorged on all the episodes, popping in one DVD after another, like buttered popcorn.  What began as a one-off viewing one night to let off steam turned into 2 months of my life, gone; that I cannot get back.

Although the ‘Singularity’ has 1% chance of happening and could be perceived as a cult of atheists, making religion out of the rational, it is a useful construct to examine the rate of change in the future.  Technology moves far quicker and profoundly than we anticipate.  The law of accelerating returns.  Chip speeds have been doubling and chip costs have been halving for the past 50 years.  The truth is our universe is transforming into a vast thinking being with the data being generated from our desktops, laptops and phones.  To approach the zero moment of truth,  in f(x)=1/x we may have to get out of the way of ourselves and use the help of machines to do the heavy lifting.

Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and billionaire investor, described the act of going from zero to one as creating something radically different like the way some start-ups like Apple, Google and Facebook have in Silicon Valley.  It requires intensive growth like birthing a child.  But the question is how do we get from 1 to 0 without imploding or degenerating?  How do we find equilibrium and calm in nothingness and everything.

 

If infinity is too large for me to comprehend, I may need a computer to warn me with an “ERROR” message like my T180 graphing calculator did in high school.  We may need machines to process infinity.  Let’s face it. Humans were born as 1s, not 0s.   Therefore, the vast majority of human effort is on a 1 to n basis.  That is where we live.  We make incremental improvements.

If the singularity is a step-function in evolution, where all parallel lines meet, where primate and android wed, then let singularity =infinity + 1, where the 1 is human.

And that’s ok.  Because Infinity + 1 still equals infinity.

SkyWeb

web30It won’t just be semantics when the inter-web grows up and takes to the sky as Sky-web.

When Web 2.0 perishes it will be counted as one of the five worst extinctions in earth’s history. It will be up there with the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, who according to some paleontologists, were caught cross-eyed in the crosswalk of killer asteroids striking the earth.

As the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic periods defined the era of dinosaurs, the largest meat-eaters to walk the earth, so too will Web 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, and the ‘Internet of Things’ underpin the Teutonic shifts in our technologies and how they impact our lives.

It was not too long ago in 1997, when the Web 1.0 gold rush hit.  The web provided a vector of exposure to brands that did not want to be locked in the prism of brick and mortar. Everyone and their cousin was launching an e-commerce site, with a .com domain, static web pages and shopping cart.  Brands in television commercials would end their 30 second pitch with a .com logo to show online credibility and how hip they digitally were.  The labor market was eating the alphabet soup of coders with HTML, CSS, Flash and Javascript skills.

Then, with the click of a hyperlink, the stampede of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites forced the hand of Web 2.0, with new requirements for richer internet applications and user-centric design.  A user with no coding background could cut/paste Javascript snippets, personalize their homepage and participate in the production of web content.  Content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla purged the demand for graphic designers and web developers, automating everything with templates and out the box plug-ins.

With Web 3.0, the best of Web 2.0 will burrow into the ground.  The web will re-emerge from a giant, global graph with a persistent data structure to something more fluid, highly personal with context provided by consumers.  According to famed semantic technologist, Nova Spivack, Web 3.0 should bring a more connected, more intelligent, self-aware, interoperable whole rather than a loose collection of siloed applications and content repositories.   Broadband adoption, mobile internet, p2p, open APIs and protocols, open IDs and semantic web technologies like RDF and SPARQL will converge and enable the web to act more autonomously, birthing Artificial Intelligence or what I call ‘SkyWeb.’

Right now we live in a syntax world with HTML coding, where the arrangement of data matters most to render a working web page that connects information.  But in Web 3.0, its all semantics.  The metadata (the data that describes the data) will help the internet find meaning, and become more intuitive, subjective and look at the whole. In sum, become a thinking machine.  If computers can understand meaning behind information, they can learn what we care about, they can help us find what we really want.

How many times have you started a search in Google’s search box and it predicts what you are searching before you even know it? As computing power increases and data is more connected, the prediction will be more accurate based on personal preferences, locations and biofeedback.

Often when we think of Artificial Intelligence a.k.a SkyWeb, we imagine an omnipresent threat or a clever conversationalist that we are stuck with by ourselves in a space station, but AI will make our lives easier.  Think of your smartphone.  Siri is a personal assistant, that answers simple questions, performs Web searches and other basic functions. Siri will get smarter, sentient. Giver her time. We will be able to communicate with her in a more cogent way.

In the short term, SkyWeb could be a thinking machine, but it will be no more advanced than a toddler, picking its nose or burping up its food.

In the long term, SkyWeb could help us find meaning to ending war, disease and poverty by executing a simple algorithm.  Now how cool is that?