Category Archives: Musings

An Aural Alchemy

The nineties had some exciting music. I could say the same for right now, but the difference is today you can experience that excitement at almost zero cost. As I type this I’m listening to something on Spotify, a cut from a Philip Glass album released thirty years ago. Thanks to streaming music services, my cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment is just pennies.

Not so back then. And because of the steep cost of owning music CDs before Napster kicked off a music distribution revolution, and also because of a personal lack of friends into neo-classical music — and also because I was a pretty broke small business owner with a tiny music-buying budget — I went through the early nineties completely ignorant of Mr. Glass’s work.

Ignorant of him — until that night.

I was living in Milwaukee, trudging through a gentle, sloppy snowstorm, heading to an East Side grocery store. My Walkman was keeping me company, set to FM radio mode, and tuned into WMSE. You need to know that back then WMSE was a college radio station that was particularly … er … college radio.

This meant you were listening not only for the music and news, but for the gaffes of student volunteers learning as they went along. Chaos could break out at any moment.

This was New Music Night. Every college radio station back then received boxes of sample LPs they could play at will, without royalty. The young man spinning vinyl that night must have grabbed the Glass album and plopped it on the turntable knowing as little about the composer as I did.

The excerpt below was recorded in the mid-seventies, but in my memory the sound that night resembled this:

What followed was some of the most repetitive, profoundly annoying music I had ever heard. It was also casting some kind of a spell on me. I almost walked past my destination. Instead I stood outside, eager for what happened next.

I didn’t have to wait long. The young man stopped the song mid-drone. No needle-scratch, but just as abrupt.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

A new song — by a different artist — filled the silence.

Mind you, I had heard New Music Night cuts over the years that were real doozies. One example: a PIL “song” that sounded like a buzz saw over the screams of the band’s leader, Johnny Rotten. And yet this night was the first and last time I heard a song abruptly stopped, and an apology extended.

Now I’m listening to a Philip Glass cut that could easily have been what disturbed the snowy peace. How interesting that new music, like a new clothing fashion, soon becomes familiar and even welcome!

I hope, Dear reader, you too experience the pleasure of hearing with new ears the things that once confounded you. It’s a gift of our extremely flexible brains, an alchemy that can turn a lump of aural coal into a diamond.

Right brain, meet left brain

This post originally appeared in the Accenture Careers blog.

As a Senior Manager in the Interactive Personalization Practice, I use my creative side to help design the best possible customer experiences. I use the analytical side to base these changes on data. The work is tricky but worth it; It leads to happier, more loyal customers for my clients.

Infinite possibilities

I’ve always been fascinated with how people work—and Accenture Interactive feeds my curiosity and sense of infinite possibilities. We’re using technology that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. We’re constantly learning. I lead a team of people from both “sides of the brain,” the creative and analytical. It makes for a fascinating workday.

Doing cool work with friends

One of the things I love best about working at Accenture is the company really “walks the talk” regarding inclusion and diversity. Our teams include people from many backgrounds and cultures, bringing different ways of thinking and communicating — all working together to produce something really cool.

And while Accenture is a global company, it feels oddly small to me — like an extended family. This is especially true in the personalization practice.

Doing cool work with your friends—what could be better?

Does your path have a heart?

A college writing teacher once returned a book I had loaned her with an index card in its pages, as a bookmark. She had written on it a quote from Carlos Castaneda: “Does this path have a heart?”

It’s a great question, and many years later, I can answer yes.

Now, here’s my career advice: Be prepared to learn your entire career. And if you don’t have a hunger and passion for learning new things, now is the time to start.

Bring your big ideas to life. Find your fit with the Accenture Interactive team.

The strength of the workplace duad

An abridged version of this post can be found on the Accenture Careers blog.

Standing in the café located in Accenture’s Chicago Digital Hub, I was scanning an email on my phone. It described what Accenture experts consider their secret sauce for finding and growing talent. To summarize:

  1. People Our people are the best and brightest in the industry, top innovators of today—and tomorrow.
  2. Culture We’re a literal global collective of diverse talent and personalities, combining to innovate and iterate.
  3. Purpose Innovating together to improve “the way the world works and lives.”

If I listed the first item without including the second, you’d think Accenture hires top people and finds them a desk where they can be privately brilliant. But as I witnessed the clusters of people at assorted tables and booths that day in the café, and the buzz of conversations, I knew better. “Innovating together” means organizing teams to address whatever the specific purpose is at hand.

Strength in small numbers

In my long career, elsewhere but especially at Accenture, I’ve experienced one extremely powerful team configuration: the duad. That’s my coinage for the deep and powerful collaborations where just two people come together to solve a problem. It was described in a recent New Yorker piece about Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, of Google. Their unlikely co-working created a machine learning system that you probably used in the last 24 hours in one form or another, without ever knowing it. Jeff and Sanjay literally “changed the Internet.”

This type of collaboration is more common than you’d think, as the article explains (emphasis my own):

François Jacob, who, with Jacques Monod, pioneered the study of gene regulation, noted that by the mid-twentieth century most research in the growing field of molecular biology was the result of twosomes. … In the past thirty-five years, about half of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have gone to scientific partnerships.

In my eight years at Accenture, I’ve been the lucky half of several duads. I believe one of the reasons Accenture is such fertile ground for this type of collaboration is its emphasis on diversity. Not just diversity of experience, or place of origin, or some other aspect that sets humans apart from the pack, but a diversity of strengths.

Tools such as online personal strength assessments help Accenture bring together teams of people whose personal skills and strengths complement each other for the most successful outcome. An unexpected value for me through one of these assessments was that it showed what I can best bring to a team and helped me seek out those whose strengths most fully complement my own.

Yin, meet yang

More than in other team configurations, complementary skills are key to excellent duads. In fact, the best duads can seem grossly mismatched.

Consider Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. As Michael Lewis describes in his enthralling The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, they were as different in temperament as chocolate and peanut butter. Lewis writes that Kahneman is “an introvert whose questing self-doubt was the seedbed of his ideas,” while Tversky was “a brilliant, self-confident [veteran Israeli] warrior and extrovert.” Their unlikely pairing all but invented the discipline of behavioral economics (Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for it in 2002; Tversky had passed away by then so could not share in the honor).

My own two-person collaborations are similarly yin/yang. For instance, you’d peg me on more of the Kahneman end of the spectrum. Additionally, a firm grasp of minutia can be difficult for me (if I were in school today I would be diagnosed as mildly dyslexic). So it’s no surprise that my partners in collaboration are typically detail-oriented extraverts.

Early in my career, I thought finding an amazing teammate was like lightning striking. “Don’t hold your breath,” I’d think, “because it’s rare.” Since joining Accenture, I’ve learned better. Great teams are more a product of a workplace design than happenstance.

Work with the industry’s best and brightest and do work that makes a difference every day. Find your fit with Accenture.

Wolves, Trains and Automobiles: The Domestication of A.I.

I’ve thought and read a lot about artificial intelligence (AI). Particularly, its potential threat to us, its human creators. I’m not much for doomsday theories, but I admit I was inclined to fear the worst. To put things at their most melodramatic, I worried we might be unwittingly creating our own eventual slave masters. But after further reading and thinking, I’ve reconsidered. Yes. A.I. will be everywhere in our future. But not as sinister job-killers and overlords. No, they will be extensions of us in a way I can only compare with that most beloved of domesticated creatures: The dog.

For you to follow my logic, you’ll need to remember two facts:

  1. Our advancement as a species from hunter-gatherers to complex civilizations would not be possible without domesticated plants and animals
  2. Our collective fear of technology is often wildly unfounded

Bear with me, but you’ll also probably need to recall these definitions:

  • Domestication: Taking existing plants or animals and breeding them to serve us. Two examples are the selection of the most helpful plants and turning them into crops. Michael Pollan’s early book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, will bring you a long way to seeing this process in action. As for animals, you may think of dogs as being mere pets, but early in our evolution as humans we bred the wolf to help us hunt for meat, and to protect us from predators. Before domestication, we pre-humans hunted in packs, and so did the wolves … never the twain shall meet. After this domestication, we ensured the more docile canines a better life, under the protection of our species and its burgeoning technologies (see definition below), and they delivered the goods for us by helping us thrive in hostile conditions. It was a symbiosis that turned our two packs into a single unit. No wonder the domesticated dog adores us so, and that we consider them man(kind)’s best friend.
  • Technology: Did you know the pencil was once considered technology? So was the alphabet. You may think of them merely as tools, but technology is any tool that is new. And our attitudes toward anything new always starts with fear. Douglas Adams put it this way: “I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1.) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2.) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3.) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” Fear of technology not surprisingly spawned the first science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a literal fever dream about a scientist’s hubris and the destruction it wrought upon himself and the world. This fear has a name: Moral panic. And it has created some pretty far-fetched urban myths.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Women And Children First: Technology And Moral Panic, Genevieve Bell listed a few of these vintage myths. The first is about the advent of the electric light: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children … vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable … and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.” And consider this even bigger hoot: “There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

Sounds messy.

I don’t have to tell you about our modern moral panic surrounding A.I. Except there is a bit of reverse sexism going on, because this time it is male workers who are more the victims. Their work — whether purely intellectual or journeyman labor — will be eliminated. We’ll all be out on the street, presumably to be mowed down by self-driving cars and trucks.

The Chicken Littles had me for a while

So what changed? In the same week I read two thought-provoking articles. One was in The New Yorker, The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark. Its subtitle says it all: The tools we use to help us think — from language to smartphones — may be part of thought itself. This long piece describes Clark’s attempt to better understand what consciousness is, and what are its boundaries. In other words, where do we as thinking humans end and the world we perceive begin?

He comes to recognize that there is a reason we perceive the world based on our five senses. Our brains are built to keep us alive and able to reproduce. Nothing more. All the bonus tracks in our brain’s Greatest Hits playlist … Making art, considering the cosmos, perceiving a future and a past … these are all artifacts of a consciousness that moves our limbs through space.

To some people, perception — the transmitting of all the sensory noise from the world — seemed the natural boundary between world and mind. Clark had already questioned this boundary with his theory of the extended mind. Then, in the early aughts, he heard about a theory of perception that seemed to him to describe how the mind, even as conventionally understood, did not stay passively distant from the world but reached out into it. It was called predictive processing.

Predictive processing starts with our bodies. For instance, we don’t move our arm when it’s at rest. We imagine it moving — predict its movement — and when our arm gets the memo it responds. Or not. If we are paralyzed, or that arm is currently in the jaws of a bear, it sends the bad news back to our brains. And so it goes.

In a similar way we project this feedback loop out into the world. But we are limited by our own sense of it.

Domestication of canines was such a game-changer because we suddenly had assistants with different senses and perceptions. Together humans and dogs became a Dynamic Duo … A prehistoric Batman and Robin. But Robin always knew who was the alpha in this relationship.

Right now there is another domestication taking place. It’s not of a plant or an animal, but of a complicated digital application. If that seems a stretch … If grouping these three together — plants, animals and applications — keep in mind that domesticating all of them means altering digital information.

All Life Is Digital

Plants and animals have DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. They are alive because they have genetic material. And guess what? It’s all digital. DNA encoding uses 4 bases: G,C,T, and A. These are four concrete values that are expressed in the complex combinations that make us both living, and able to pass along our “usness” to new generations. We’re definitely more complicated than the “currently” binary underpinnings of A.I. But as we’ve seen, A.I. is really showing us humans up in some important ways.

They’re killing us humans at chess. And Jeopardy.

So: Will A.I. become conscious and take us over? Clark would say consciousness is beyond A.I.’s reach, because as impressive as its abilities to move through the world and perceive it are, even dogs have more of an advantage in the consciousness department. He would be backed up by none less than Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kohneman, of Thinking, Fast and Slow fame. I got to hear him speak on this subject live, at a New Yorker TechFest, and I was impressed and relieved by how sanguine he was about the future of A.I.

Here’s where I need to bring in the other article, a much briefer one, from The Economist. Robots Can Assemble IKEA Furniture sounds pretty ominous. It’s a modern trope that assembling IKEA furniture is an unmanning intellectual test. But the article spoke more about A.I.’s limitations than its looming existential threats.

First, it took the robots comparatively long time to achieve the task at hand. In the companion piece to that article we read that …

Machines excel at the sorts of abstract, cognitive tasks that, to people, signify intelligence—complex board games, say, or differential calculus. But they struggle with physical jobs, such as navigating a cluttered room, which are so simple that they hardly seem to count as intelligence at all. The IKEAbots are a case in point. It took a pair of them, pre-programmed by humans, more than 20 minutes to assemble a chair that a person could knock together in a fraction of the time.

Their struggles brought me back to how our consciousness gradually materialized to our prehistoric ancestors. It arrived not in spite of our sensory experience of the world, but specifically because of it. If you doubt that just consider my natural and clear way just now of describing the arrival of consciousness: I said it materialized. You understood this as a metaphor associated with our perception of the material world.

This word and others to describe concepts play on our ability to feel things. Need another example: This is called a goddamn web page. What’s a page? What’s a web? They’re both things we can touch and experience with our carefully evolved senses.

And without these metaphors these paragraphs would not make sense.

Yes, our ancestors needed the necessary but not sufficient help of things like cooking, which enabled us to take in enough calories to grow and maintain our complex neural network, and the domestication of animals and plants that led us to agriculture and an escape from the limitations of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes (I strongly recommend Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for more on this), but …

To gain consciousness, we also needed to feel things. And what do we call people who don’t feel feelings? Robots. “Soulless machines.”

Without evolving to feel, should A.I. nonetheless take over the world, it’s unlikely they will be assembling their own IKEA chairs with alacrity. They’ll make us do it for them. Because our predictive processing makes this type of task annoying but manageable. We can even do it faster over time.

It’s All About The Feels

But worry not. Our enslavement won’t happen because — and I’m feeling pretty hubristic myself as I write this — we’re the feelers, the dreamers, the artists. Not A.I.

Before we domesticated dogs, we were limited in where in the world we could roam, and the game we could hunt. After dogs, we progressed. We prospered. Dogs didn’t put us out of jobs, if you will, they took the jobs they were better at in our service. Inevitably, we found other ways to use our time, including becoming creatures who are closer to the humans we would recognize on the street today, or staring back in the mirror.

We are domesticating A.I. Never forget that.

And repeat after me: We have nothing to fear but moral panic itself.