Man vs. Machine vs. Data….?

Author: Penny Leach SLA LMD Past Chair 2017 and BIR Editorial Board Member

Please note this post contains the personal views of the author and are not connected with her employer
 

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 14th Perfect Information Conference (PIC2017) in Bath, England.  This annual event, hosted by the company Perfect Information (part of Mergermarket), brings together leaders and senior members of information services from within financial and professional service organisations with representatives of their content and service vendor partners.   The high number of repeat attendees confirms the conference’s value.  This year’s programme theme was ‘Man vs Machine: comrade or threat’.  For me (spoiler alert!) the whole event reaffirmed the current and future value and potential of humans in an increasingly technological world.

The conference programme includes keynote speakers, more practical workshops and hot topic think tanks (and of course some socialising!).  What seemed to me initially a rather disparate set of topics actually transitioned from the big picture of artificial intelligence (AI) and its future to more practical implications of change for businesses today.  Having worked myself for a short time at the (original) Turing Institute in the early days of AI, it was fascinating to hear where AI is today.

AI is all around us, was the clear answer from the three speakers who focused on this topic, respectively Marc Vollenweider (Evalueserve), Anton Fishman (Fishman & Partners) and Nicolas Bombourg (Report Linker).  Marc, who is transitioning from CEO to Chief Strategist of Evalueserve, spoke about the explosion of data sets, and the business value to be derived from cheap but effective analytic use cases.   Anton alluded to the ‘perfect storm’ of converging technologies that is affecting the world of machine learning.  Nicolas described Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) – where we are now (machines specialising in one are) – and how we are moving closer to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) – machines thinking like humans – and even beyond to Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI).

Are we heading for dystopia or utopia?  There were references to sobering statistics about the predicted negative impact on job numbers, for example, Mark Carney’s speech on the  ‘hollowing out of the middle classes’ and Frey & Osborne’s research in to the future of work in the US.  Ultimately however the message was upbeat. Marc is definite that ‘insights need humans’, and has written about the benefits of combining mind+machine.  Anton referred to the opportunity for the ‘rise of humans’ that Microsoft’s Envisioning Officer has described.   The message is that technology is supporting humans, expanding our potential – AI is already invisibly enhancing our world.  This is not a zero sum game for mankind, even if it does create much management uncertainty, ethical dilemmas,  job redefinition and the need for a new ‘social contract’.

What were my key takeaways from these speakers and all the other interaction at the conference for me in my role as an information professional and services manager?

Information professionals do have roles to play in the new data economy, where the flow of data is driving innovation and growth, as long as they are open minded and upskill.  Marc has elsewhere talked about the emerging role of the information engineer in creating analytics solutions. McKinsey recently re-recognised the need for translators between technology and information, reaffirming the need to link IT, understanding of data, and business need.  Establishing the veracity of data is of course a traditional information professional skill.

Information professionals need to engage with the business, via new channels such as their workplace’s Chief Information or Data Officer (CIO, CDO) – wherever analytics are happening – and change the scope of their services to help the business build effective productivity tools and  new trigger-based workflows, and avoid data lakes that become data graveyards.

Change management is important – keeping people engaged, attracting new talent, enabling career progression, as well as ensuring effective use of the new tools and data by the business.

And for those directly engaged in buying and selling data there are reminders of the early days of the internet and outsourcing in the challenges of delivering and consuming data in new ways – for the vendors, what to build first for which client, how to protect the data, how to charge for it; for their clients where to focus efforts, who will eat the costs; and for both parties, how to deal with the increased visibility of data quality issues.

Overall the Conference ended on an optimistic note in contrast to the anxieties of the 2016 Conference (as described by in the opening session of the conference by Robin Neidorf) and inspite of the seismic political changes we have seen in the UK and USA in the last twelve months.  It will be interesting to hear how things have further changed for the attendees by the same time next year.

Let me know what you think of AI’s impact on your world.

Penny Leach

SLA LMD Past Chair 2017

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