Augmenting Me

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I have spent time lately exploring Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Assistants (VA) & Chatbots and how these can be used within a bank – after all I invest in fintech so this revelation should not shock anyone. The purpose of this post is not share my findings on these discoveries, what works, what does not, what a bank should do, what hot trends I believe in and which startups I am interested in backing. Rather, my purpose is to share my personal views on how I would like “technology” to augment me. Note that I refrain from writing “how I would like AI to augment me” as I am unsure if AI is the right term for what I am seeking.

I do not differ from the majority of my fellow human beings in as much as I want to be better. A better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better co-worker, a better investor and a better expert at what I do daily. I meditate, I exercise empathy, I exercise physically, i exercise humility AND I exercise my brain. I think and I think about becoming a smarter and sharper thinker.

So far I have seen AI applications and startups focused on:

– Automating repetitive tasks

– Automating simple tasks

– Helping with making expert decisions

– Removing human biases

– Navigating through mountains of data

The benefits, actual or promised are obvious. AI will free us from mundane tasks so we can focus on higher value thinking, will eliminate our human weaknesses, will point us to the right decisions, will shorten the time to right actions. Cheaper, faster, to the point. Why am I not completely satisfied? Maybe because I sense a “dehumanizing” threat lurking behind the promise of AI. After all, I could end up ceding some of the tasks I currently perform to an automaton, stop thinking about certain tasks and analytical processes because another automaton will give me the answer faster and end up relying on various algorithms without exercising any critical thinking – and critical thinking is my most precious asset!

I spend most of my time reading and listening what others write and say and scrutinizing what they do. I thrive on induction and deduction, cross referencing, linking, making inferences, aggregating, sorting and ultimately decisioning. The more data I digest the better. The faster and more accurate I am at linking various data points intelligently and decisioning thereafter the better. Freeing 20% of my time from my daily schedule via the use of a VA or another 20% of my time with the use of an expert system is not going to move the needle materially. Actually I view these as potential linear changes. I will be able to do more of the same during the week. Big deal, so what.

To date I have evolved several techniques to manage and push myself. I take breaks when I feel fatigue lurking. I play games or perform mental gymnastics when I want my brain to work in different ways (mostly chess, educational & training apps), i alternate between reading blog posts, tweets, lengthy articles, books (e-books and real books), i alternate between subject matters, i alternate between writing on a piece of paper and typing on my computer, i doodle (i wish i knew how to draw), I label and save data for future reading or re-use, I consume media during downtime (music, movies), I continuously doubt and double check myself… All of these I have developed over time. Still I believe I have scratched the surface and that my “tools” are far from perfect – I make mistakes, I forget, I contradict myself.

What I am looking for is technology that a) trains my mind to process data faster over longer periods of time while minimizing productivity losses due to fatigue, b) helps identify my blind spots and allows me to mitigate them over time, c) identifies the best way for me to digest data in the right way at the right time, d) helps me recognize my biases, and e) helps me become more creative and innovative in my thinking. I believe the technology or set of technologies that will help me achieve these goals will accelerate my thinking more than linearly.

Rather than interpreting AI and robotics as a Man vs Machine contest – and by that I mean where a machine or algorithm abstracts certain tasks and alienates them from me – or as a Man fusing with Machine end goal – man as cyborg frightens me and i do not believe in singularity –  I am much more interested in a Man and Machine narrative where I get augmented by a “cognitive” machine.

Would it not be amazing if my personal VA would alert me to the bias I just exercised when analyzing a data set, would present me data in different formats to stave off brain fatigue or optimize my learning based on what it knows about how my brain works and my current physiological state, would present me with potential inferences and linkages from the past and the present so that I could more easily make further linkages and inferences on top of previous ones, would exercise my brain to better recognize conscious and subconscious signals, present me with the right data in the right context for major ha-ha moments – as opposed to triggering a consumerist stimuli or a mere call to action – would learn with me and adapt to my progress, would provide me insights on how I arrived at past insights and innovative moments or decisions and finally would be designed in a way that I would trust it and therefore allow myself to collaborate with it and learn from it – i think both form and function are important here.

Absent a deep knowledge of the current state of cognitive computing and AI, I assume the above is a science fiction wish list. I realize my yearnings are a far cry from the explicit state of AI I see embodied in the various tech platforms startups are bringing to market. My view is that most of the approaches I have been exposed to are very mechanistic – a natural state due to the limits of technology and knowledge of the human brain I gather. I wonder if the technology behind Viv is a step towards this wish list.

I remember dreaming in 1997 about a device that would allow me to do everything a computer, a cell phone, an encyclopedia, a notebook, a canvas & paintbrush, a camera, a tv and a movie theater could do. Clearly, I was not impressed by the Palm Pilot then. It took 10 years for me to see this dream materialize with the introduction of the first iPhone in 2007 and another 9 years to see it refined til now. I wonder how long it will take for us to graduate from the elementary AI platforms of today to ones that will truly augment us. Even though the rate of technology advance is accelerating I wonder if the next exponential leaps will occur at a relatively slow pace due to the infinite complexity of the brain.

Pascal Bouvier

Life and work experiences have given Pascal an unmatched vantage point, seeing things as both venture capitalist and aspiring entrepreneur. He currently is a Venture Partner with Santander Innoventures – Santander Group’s Global Fintech fund.

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