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Of robots, women, and poets

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-05-2017 Siddharth Pai

Some weeks ago, in this column, I had spoken of how today’s information technology (IT) services workforce needs to be radically retrained or face retrenchment. While the thrust of that column was about changing today’s process-bound technologists, I had started by harking back to the days when I had first learnt how to programme a computer, and had spoken of a man named Desmond, an Anglo-Indian poet and musician with whom I had been teamed up during that computer-training class. I ended the column by talking about how poets may displace programmers.

I have also earlier spoken of the need to back women-led start-ups, arguing that the rate of success of such start-ups is reportedly higher than those led by men, and the fact that women are less likely to be financed creates an arbitrage opportunity for investors who are canny enough to see this opening. To give you an idea of the size of this gap, IBM Corp.’s research has evidently shown that women-led start-ups are likely to be 15% more profitable on average, but are 40% less likely to be funded. Any investor with a half a brain would jump on this opportunity, assuming of course that the other half of their brain could be used to pick the right bets from among the minuscule pool of women-led ventures (less than 8% of start-ups).

In both instances, I had friends who read the column call me to disagree. Poets as programmers? Backing female technologists? “I appreciate your sentiments, Sid,” one of them said to me, “but you should know by now that the hard world of business has no room for sentimentality.”

I wasn’t being sentimental in either case. I was basing these statements on hard facts. Both the Washington Post and Wired magazine, among others, have talked about how poets, musicians and women are in fact leading the way with digital assistants such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. And without counting the millions and millions spent by large players such as Microsoft and Google, virtual assistant start-ups have garnered over $35million in investment over the past year, says the Washington Post.

Virtual assistants and other robots, in fields as far flung from one another such as medicine and home automation, are fast becoming the norm. The rise of this technology will create a vast pool of new jobs at the intersection of human and artificial intelligence. According to Forrester, 12.7 million new US jobs by 2025 will involve building robots or automation software and by 2019, more than one-third of the US workforce will work side by side with such technologies. Cliff Justice, an old friend, and now head of KPMG’s efforts in automation and artificial intelligence, thinks that “cognitive” represents the new frontier, and by “cognitive” he means the technology that governs the exact point of interaction between human and machine.

If this point of interaction is the magic point, then the need for poets and creative writers is lyrically captured in a quote made by Robyn Ewing. This lady, who was until recently a screenwriter in Hollywood, and is now part of the development team behind a medical virtual assistant named Sophie, said to the Washington Post, “So, if the character doesn’t delight you, then what is the point?”

Three women, Beth Holmes, Farah Houston and Michelle Riggen-Ransom, all with liberal arts backgrounds, have been named by Wired as among the 20 technology visionaries who are creating the future. These three women are the brains behind the personality of Amazon Inc.’s Alexa, which is an artificial intelligence device already used by millions of customers of the technology behemoth. In fact, Alexa was one of the most popular gifts last Christmas season, and continues to sell heavily.

Wired’s citation includes a brief background on the three women: Riggen-Ransom, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, composes Alexa’s raw responses. She leads a group of playwrights, poets, fiction authors, and musicians who complete weekly writing exercises that are incorporated into Alexa’s persona. Houston, a psychology graduate specializing in personality science, ensures that those responses fit customers’ expectations. Holmes, a mathematician with expertise in natural language processing, decides which current events are woven into Alexa’s vocabulary, from current sporting league championships such as the Indian Premier League to the Oscars. The common thread is that all three women have been writers.

Here too, at the “cognitive” interface, lies an arbitrage anomaly that can be easily plugged by youngsters joining today’s workforce or those retraining themselves to meet the new world. There are millions of people in India and abroad with training in technology who are writing programming code meant for machines to understand. But there are far fewer people writing natural language responses for these machines that are meant for humans to understand. These writers must create what is called a “backstory” for such robots and intelligent assistants. This backstory will very likely never be seen by its human interlocutors, but nonetheless forms the artificial personality behind each virtual assistant or robot. It is this backstory that allows a robotic assistant to answer the increasingly fantastic questions that users ask them—such as “Siri, do you love me?” or “Alexa, is there a God?”.

Evidently, Anand Mahindra agrees with this premise. “Who will save the world?” he said, while recently addressing leaders from the IT industry. “It is going to be poets. Poets will save the world, not technology. It is the people who use their imagination...people who oppose oppression, people who oppose the pollution on the planet...it is not machines who are going to oppose that. It is going to be poets, writers, musicians. They will save the world, not technology.”

And with respect to women, the ancients probably had it right. They perceived that wisdom, knowledge and writing were governed by the female force of the supreme: in Egypt, the goddess Seshat, and in India, the goddess Sharadamba.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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