How Technology Rewrites the Business Playbook
Journalist Thomas Friedman speaks with MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2017.
Machines are making decisions humans used to make. The world’s five most valuable companies are tech firms. The Internet is a source of collective wisdom for people seeking solutions to myriad problems. It would be hard to overstate the dramatic impact artificial intelligence and increased digitization are having on nearly every aspect of our lives. What does this mean for business?
Andrew McAfee, co-founder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, says technology is reworking how businesses operate. “When there’s this much happening in the world of technology, the business playbook should be rewritten pretty substantially.” He and MIT colleague Erik Brynjolfsson released their book Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, last year. It’s a guidebook of sorts for organizations, businesses, and nonprofits on how to navigate our changing world. It delves into three considerations when thinking about how to make decisions today. “Machines are getting crazy powerful, platforms are coming on strong, we can tap into the wisdom of the crowd. All three of those things are happening at once and reinforcing each other, so we think we’re heading into a new chapter in the history of business,” says McAfee.
Fear of the Future
Previous big technology transitions required strong political leadership. Unfortunately, says McAfee, that’s not happening today. He thinks our national politics are dominated by nostalgia, “and by this deep desire to go back 50 years and mine coal again? It’s incredibly weird and vexing to me.” Brynjolfsson, who’s a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says when there’s fear of the future, a reflexive tendency to return to the past emerges. It’s a stagnating and dangerous idea. “If we’re going to be successful we have embrace the future ...And that’s the opposite of what we see happening.” A bright spot, says McAfee, is the energy seen in government bodies outside of Washington. “At the state and local levels there are some really fascinating things happening. They are laboratories of democracy.”
Fake News: Growing Pains of a Powerful Revolution
What about the downsides of technology? We saw the potency and proliferation of fake news during the 2016 US election. Facebook admitted in September it unknowingly sold political ads to buyers connected to the Russian government, according to Bloomberg. The company has embarked on an effort to crack down on fake news. “There’s fake news on Wikipedia, there’s more on Twitter, and even more on Facebook,” says Brynjolfsson, “But they all have a slightly different governance method.” He says some methods work better than others, but he’s hopeful because academic researchers are developing a set of tools to work on this problem. “We’ve seen the failures, they were devastating in the last election. But the tools are out there, and I’m hopeful that these smart people and some experimentation and testing will lead to a system that has more trust then we had before.”
Watch the session, How AI Will Shake Up Business and Society, from the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Written by Marci Krivonen, Associate Editor/Producer, Aspen Ideas Festival