Fear of AI

This post is about the current climate surrounding AI.

So there has been a lot of reports in the press lately that AI is something to be wary of. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and other luminaries have written an open letter setting out research priorities which they believe will ensure the maximisation of societal benefit. It is an understandable fear. Imagine a person who is extremely intelligent, whose cognitive skills grow with time and who doesn’t forget anything. That is in essence what we have in store with the development of AI. Would one be scared of such a person? I guess the answer depends on whether that person is friend or foe.

In nature, death is planned obsolescence. However strong a person or group of people are, there is comfort in knowing that they are all mortal and that there is hope in fighting such an entity. But an entity which is omniscient, that is hard to beat. Perhaps humanity will end up creating “God” – something which is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, which would be rather ironic after living in the fear of God for millennia.

What if Douglas Adams was right and humanity is but a part of a small experiment by an alien species far more powerful than us? I guess in that case there is not much to worry about. Let humanity not worry too much about the consequences of its actions because we are in a petri dish anyway – unless of course we are the experiment which goes awry and causes major destruction in our host’s world…

What if our world was created in the same way the worlds are “generated” in the game No Man’s Sky? Does this mean the “creationists” are right? Is it possible that in the same way that a virtual world can be simulated by a software program, that our world is the result of someone else’s creation? In which case evolution could just be an illusion. The aforementioned game only generates worlds in 2D, but a more sophisticated race could have the ability to generate an infinite number of 3D worlds, one of which is ours?

In any case, I don’t think we should fear AI any more than our ancestors probably feared fire when they first encountered it. If we are the ones developing it, we will also be the ones to figure out a way to keep it in check. The arms race between “good” and “bad” is a perpetual one with both sides winning and losing on a fairly regular basis.

Next step for Amazon

It is a bit of an understatement to say that Amazon’s infrastructure business is impressive. Conjure up some appropriate superlatives in your own mind to describe it.

Here is what I think they should do next with their infrastructure: build a search engine and expose its capabilities via the AWS API, and charge for it. Miniscule amounts of money for each search query and let others build value added services on top of it. Once the underlying foundations of a search engine are taken care of, competition will thrive in the search engine space.

A publicly funded search engine?

Given that search engines are such a fundamental part of people’s lives these days, should we have a publicly funded search engine? Similar to the way the BBC is funded? Despite the things which go wrong at the BBC, it is still one of the most trusted news organisations in the world today, and the way it is funded plays a central role. The other fantastic thing about the BBC is that there are no ads in either its radio or TV channels (except ads for other programmes on the BBC).

Advantages of a publicly funded search engine are:

  • Advertising free! Such a search engine will not have to rely on advertising revenues to sustain itself. Which means privacy issues are easier to tackle. They will not disappear of course. Law enforcement agencies always will have access to search logs.
  • Not having to store search history to “personalise” search means fewer resources will be required to maintain this search engine
  • Pooling of resources. “Publicly funded search engines” from various countries could collaborate so that a single search engine is maintained which makes it cheaper for everyone involved.
  • Focussed search. Rather than index every bit of crap on the internet, such a search engine can focus on indexing only on “useful” domains. This would bring back the art of curation to search.
  • The above feature would automatically lead to a “family friendly” search function by excluding pornographic sites from the indexing process. No more need for “safe search” from commercial search engines.
  • Self sufficiency. Imagine a world where the US is in conflict with all other nations. What happens to the rest of us if Google and Microsoft shut off access to their search engines?

Disadvantages of this approach:

  • There is the danger of becoming a bureaucratic organisation if it didn’t have to innovate to survive, but this is a solvable problem. The BBC is kept in check and held accountable by various entities. A similar approach could be taken. Despite high profile failures, the BBC does successfully keep up with trends in technology with the iPlayer as a good example.
  • Danger of censorship by government. It is possible that government agencies might try to control the search engine function, thereby leading to censorship. This could be mitigated by making sure that the organisation is set up in a way which minimises this possibility. Commercial search engines are not immune to this threat. Google’s experience in China shows us that if a government really wanted to censor the Internet, it finds a way.
  • Financial viability. Depending on how much is required to build and maintain a search engine, the burden on the citizens of a country will vary. Some countries might not even be able to fund such a public service. Such countries will have to rely on their allies for their search service. This is not as bad as it sounds. Many small countries do not have an effective army to defend themselves, and rely on their allies to protect them from invasion. This would be no different.

The likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have done an amazing job so far in building up the Internet to what it is today. It is time though for countries to think about self sufficiency in something as fundamental to people’s lives as “search”. My economics professors would probably frown upon my notion of “self sufficiency” and instead point to the concept of comparative advantage which states that each country should do what it does best to maximise aggregate output. I wholeheartedly disagree with this!


I keep thinking of the various ways large Internet companies such as Google and Facebook try to provide “free” services while their real aim is to serve ads to people and make money. There is nothing wrong with trying to make money, but for me companies like Facebook represent everything that is wrong with the way ad-funded businesses are going about it. The constant erosion of privacy for anyone with a Facebook/Google/LinkedIn/etc account is well known.

Advertising is indeed important for businesses. But why this desire to be subversive just to try and serve ads? Why not have a few websites which are dedicated for advertising, and people can visit those sites when they are on the market for something? So in effect this would be “pull advertising” rather than “push advertising”. “Push advertising” is the equivalent of vendors nagging you on the street while you trying to go for a walk, which can be rather annoying. Or following you whenever you are out and about so that they can observe you and learn about your habits, and then fish out products which they think you might need or be interested in. Wouldn’t it be creepy if that happened in real life? That is how online advertising works currently.

Here is an alternative which I call “pull advertising”. Imagine a portal where businesses/individuals paid to advertise their products and services. When people want to buy something, they would do a search on this website, using various filter criteria such as location, and all relevant matches would be shown, including the current sale price. Customer clicks through and makes a purchase. Easy. No need to build “social networking” sites, tricking people into revealing things about themselves just to sell them washing machines, coffee machines etc. Just make the information available, and people will come and find it when they need it. Such a portal could be quite feature rich. Imagine a scenario where you had salespersons at the end of a video link. Just as one would walk up to a store assistant in  a physical store, one could have a video chat with a salesperson who could clarify some product feature.

That raises the question: “How do new businesses advertise their products/services?” The answer to that would be user preferences. If a user were interested in knowing about new products/services in a certain category, they could subscribe to either receive push updates from a portal such as the above, or be shown these ads when they are interacting with the portal. In this way, online advertising will also be forced to be a bit more creative to attract people’s attention.

The answer is not ebay. ebay is the online equivalent of a car boot sale. I want the wide variety of stores (online and physical) that we have today, but a central place to compare the offering of various retailers, or discover new products. I guess I want the online equivalent of a trade fair.

Sustainable Success

I wrote the following essay for a competition at business school. Sadly, I didn’t win, but I’m going to publish it anyway, as a record of my progress in essay writing.

Achieving Sustainable Success

For any organisation to succeed, it needs great leadership at all levels within. To create an organisation which can sustain success over a long period of time, leaders in each generation need to lay and reinforce the foundations which underpin a successful organisation. This essay attempts to describe the things leaders should be doing to enable their organisation to achieve sustainable success.


Every organisation needs a vision. It should be forward looking and aspirational. Something that inspires the people who make up the organisation. It should be embedded into their DNA, and make them spring out of bed in the morning, eager to realise that vision. The pace of change in the modern world is fast and relentless. Each new innovation accelerates the cycle of change, and the only way a business can succeed is by riding the waves of change with the vision acting as a pole star for its people.


It is imperative for the success of any organisation that a culture of openness is created and nurtured. Openness primarily in the way the employees are treated. It has become a familiar sight across organisations where performance reviews are either merely a formality or are simply ambiguous. Even worse, these review systems seem to keep ‘evolving’ every 12­-18 months for reasons best known to the people who maintain them. Most departments are required to show a normalised distribution, where there are a few top achievers, a few underperformers and the rest of the staff being “strong performers”. There is usually a “The Best” or “Totally Uber Outstanding” grade as a possible outcome for performance reviews, but no one can explain to an employee how such a grade can be attained. This creates cynicism and develops a culture of disengagement. People are an organisation’s most important asset, and all too often people are treated badly or unfairly for no apparent reason. The success of an organisation, and its people, is best achieved when their goals are aligned. It is therefore imperative that leaders prioritise people management to try and achieve this happy medium.

Shared ownership

People care about things which they own. If it is a process that people have to follow, they should have the opportunity to contribute to the development of the process. People should be allowed to have a say in the choice of tools that are used to do their jobs. All too often we hear the lament from people about how long their corporate laptop takes to boot up in the morning, or how nonsensical the process for claiming expenses is. Millions of hours of employee time is wasted each year in large organisations because overarching decisions are made by people who are far removed from the impact of their decision making. Employees should also be given a stake in the business, and rewarded appropriately for their level of output. Doing this in a fair manner is quite hard, but is also very important. People become disengaged from their work if they feel that they are being exploited.

Leadership is required at all levels

In the article “Management is (still) not Leadership” by John Kotter (Harvard Business Review blog, 9th Jan 2013, (http://blogs.hbr.org/kotter/2013/01/management-is-still-not-leadership.html), he argues that leadership is required at all levels in an organisation, not just at the top. All too often, management is mistaken for leadership whereas these two are completely different. It is vital that this insight is firmly rooted within an organisation, and everyone knows that they are expected to demonstrate leadership in their daily jobs. Unless this is done, there is the danger that people always look to their managers for leadership, instead of using their own initiative and creativity to find solutions to issues they are facing.

Failure is progress

Lot of businesses talk about the importance of innovation, but very few actually put in place the support structures needed for innovation to thrive. Human beings are naturally curious and inquisitive, and ideas are followed through only when there is no fear of failure. Checks and balances are obviously required to prevent excessive risk taking, and as long as people understand the boundaries within which they have to operate, they should be allowed to try out new ideas and take calculated risks without fear of rebuke or ridicule. Some great examples of organisations where this culture is widely prevalent are 3M and Google. Both companies allow employees to spend a certain amount of their time at work trying out new ideas. 3M allowed its employees to spend up to 15% of their paid time trying out new ideas (http://solutions.3m.com/innovation/en_US/stories/time-to-think). One such employee created the PostIt note. Google allows its employees to spend up to 20% of their time working on things not related to their job description (http://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2006/05/googles-20-percent-time-in-action.html). While these kind of policies are undoubtedly hard to create and manage, past experience shows that they can be incredibly rewarding. This is understandable, because people work harder on ideas they have come up with.

Live the message

Leaders need to overtly demonstrate that they are living the message they are trying to spread. As an extreme example, a CEO exhorting employees to observe fiscal discipline should not be travelling in a private jet! In fact, in times of hardship, leaders should take a bigger share of the pain, rather than asking lower paid employees to accept big cuts to their benefits.

Establish a succession plan

Almost no one is indispensable in large organisations. While this may be largely true, for an organisation to achieve sustainable success, it needs to establish a succession plan for its leaders. Talent within the organisation should be identified and nurtured so that there is an orderly transition from the old to the new at the appropriate time.

Hire the right people

If people are the most important asset of an organisation, and indeed they are, it is vital that the hiring process is taken very seriously. Employees should be encouraged to hire people who fit with the vision and culture of the organisation. It is sometimes better not to fill a position, rather than filling it someone unsuitable. This can only work well if people are given the time and space required to find the right candidates, and it is an activity which cannot be outsourced. A good example of a business where the hiring process is central to its functioning is Valve
(http://www.valvesoftware.com). Their handbook, available at http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1074301/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf, describes the way people work within the business, and provides an example of how a business can succeed in an unconventional manner.

Encourage diversity

In an increasingly heterogeneous world, it is important that the people who are part of an organisation reflect the society it is serving. Diversity brings with it various challenges, but also immense benefits. People of different cultures, nationalities, and genders bring with them different perspectives which are very important in a complex decision making process. Homogeneity brings with it a one sided view of the world which can lead to bias in decision making, and stifle an organisation’s ability to develop plans that remain distinct or competitive in a rapidly changing business environment.

Establish internal communication channels

Internal communication is key to the success of an organisation. An organisation is similar to complex machine. The machine can only work efficiently if all the components are functioning in sync with each other. So leaders of an organisation should establish channels of communication which ensure the smooth flow of information. One could also look at the role of leaders within an organisation as the role of adults in raising a child. Good communication is necessary between all adults involved to create a healthy environment for the child to gown up in.

Ethical Behaviour

An organisation does not exist in isolation. It can only exist by having a symbiotic relationship with the society it serves. Leaders of an organisation should always be mindful of this relationship, and enshrine ethics into their core principles. Profit making is not unethical, but chasing profits in a way which is detrimental to society is short sighted and ultimately self defeating. History is littered with the corpses of businesses where ethics took a back seat. Examples are Enron (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/1780075.stm), Arthur Andersen (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2047122.stm), Satyam Computers (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7818220.stm).


I have not mentioned any of the technical aspects of a business, such as an effective operations strategy, a brilliant marketing strategy or an efficient sales strategy which are hygiene factors for success. All these technical aspects will contribute to the success of a business, but to achieve sustainable success, leaders need to invest time and effort in the ‘softer’ aspects of a business, which I have tried to describe in this essay.


BBC News (15 Jun 2002) Andersen guilty in Enron case, [Online],
Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2047122.stm [28 Mar 2013]

BBC News (22 Aug 2002) Enron scandal at­a­glance, [Online],
Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/1780075.stm [28 Mar 2013]

Kotter, John. (9 Jan 2013) Management Is (still) Not Leadership, [Online],
Available: http://blogs.hbr.org/kotter/2013/01/management-is-still-not-leadership.html [28 Mar 2013]

K, Alex. (18 May 2006) Google’s “20 percent time” in action, [Online],
Available: http://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2006/05/googles-20-percent-time-in-action.html  [28 Mar 2013]

Vaswani, Karishma (8 Jan 2009) Satyam scandal shocks India, [Online],
Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7818220.stm [28 Mar 2013]

(2012), Valve handbook, [Online],
Available: http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1074301/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf [29 Mar 2013]