The itch to innovate

This is an anecdote from many years ago, when Bill Gates was the Lord of the Tech World and the darling of the markets (before Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk et al). A conference of industry leaders was taking place somewhere with industry titans from IT, Automotive, Healthcare and other sectors participating. Bill Gates, in his speech was taking pot shots at the automotive industry, about how innovative and agile his industry was while the automobiles hardly advanced beyond a specific set of innovations and over a longer time period…too slow to adapt and too slow to change. Then came the turn of a Ford (or GM, I forget) CEO to speak. Taking a direct swipe at Bill Gates he said…”Mr Gates, if we, in our industry, had the same number of crashes as your famous Windows software has on a daily basis, millions of people would be dead across the world and we would be out of business in days”.

This exchange of words was at a time when software still had not entered critical  aspects of everyday life of people. Now that we are slowly seeing technology and software permeate every aspect of our life and A.I./deep learning and other such amazing ideas, promising to upend our lives, for the better…they say!   should we be worried? As technology comes closer and closer to our everyday lives, can we really say we are safer and better? or are we heading towards a world of ever greater risk, risk over which we gradually lose control. Every time I go up a modern elevator, a secure entrance to a hi-tech building or do my banking on a smart phone, I sometimes wonder about the reliability of the software running the systems. I see, day in and day out, weird behaviour of elevators as they go up and down, security entrances going crazy and ultimately requiring a technician/software expert to come and fix it or ‘reprogram’ it. And this from the biggest and most famous of names in the industry…who I assume must be employing the world’s top software companies to write the codes. So when we talk about autonomous cars on roads, bots doing surgery or algorithms designing our portfolios and making investment decisions on our hard earned money…are we taking our confidence in codes and algorithms, a bit too far? Should there be a line, in each field, in each industry…that we should not cross?

After the recent Boeing 737 Max crashes, blamed on code that is supposed to anticipate and keep the plane safe and make it simpler for pilots, the US President tweeted “Planes have gone too complex to fly…it should not need an Einstein to fly it”. A rather crude way of putting it, but I think it does make a larger point. In our never ending itch to innovate we sometimes cross the line between what is something good to have vs what is mission critical/necessary and where does simplicity of existing verified system score over a complex system entirely based on software code & sensors that ‘promises’ to make things simple. It can be argued here…was not the present system a new ‘promised’ innovation which had its doubters and naysayers at some point in time, before becoming reliable? Yes, true, but what I’m arguing for is a rational look at the process itself to determine how far and how long that innovative process needs to run, in a particular industry, particular situation and particular system and having the wisdom to stop at a certain point. The ability to say…yes for this particular scenario and system, we have reached the line that we should not cross. And this line will have different thresholds for different industries. The threshold for innovation can be much higher, say, in the gaming industry but much lower in the health care or mass transportation industry. But at least there should be some kind of a threshold.

Reminds me of my car, a Ford Fusion that I had some years back. It was one of the few cars in the mid-size segment that at the time, brought in technologies like blind spot /cross traffic indicators and rear view cameras, features that only high end cars at the time, used to give (now almost all cars have them). Certainly very useful features and I see continuing refinements in today’s cars…but I remember how quickly those features blacked out every time there was heavy rain coming in at an angle or a medium level snowfall. Sometimes you become so used to depending on those systems while driving that you forget the usual safety checks you do while driving, simple things like looking over your shoulder before changing lanes or checking your mirrors every few seconds. Things that are weather proof and are not dependent on software or complicated radars affixed to your car.

Anyways, the human brain is a strange object. Its characteristic is to continuously think, the ‘monkey mind’ as the scriptures classify it as. A mind that likes to jump from one thing to another and can never quieten down until we make substantial effort in the form of meditation or some form of deep thinking. As some philosopher rightly said, the human mind has the inscrutable desire and ability to try to understand and fathom the mysteries of the material world but rarely does it like to go in the opposite direction and realize the higher purpose or understand the ‘construct’ from the outside-in. The why’s of the universe instead of the what, when and where’s…that is a path each individual ultimately takes, some sooner, some later. Technological or any other kind of material innovation is not evolution, it is the by-product of the constant and unstoppable itch of the human mind that is its nature. True evolution is when we can voluntarily switch off that itch and instead learn who we are and why we are here and where are we headed, in the depths of a perfectly quiescent mind.

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