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  Until we become as good at building — and sustaining — effective organizations as we are good at computer programming, we will never realize our full human potential.
   

Reflections on Watson the Computer
March 1, 2011

The gap between human and artificial intelligence seems to be getting smaller. . .on Feb. 16, IBM’s “Watson” computer outsmarted two Jeopardy champions. A recent edition of TIME magazine explored our quest for human perfection and the rapidly emerging human-technology interface. And the current issue of Atlantic magazine reports the ever-closer results of the Turing Test—which determines whether a human or computer program can hold the most human-like conversation for five minutes.

As I read about these technological advancements, I can’t help thinking that, if given a chance, I would love to have a chip planted in my brain that would help me remember names. I meet so many people every day from across our 60,000-person community of students, administrators, faculty, alumni and corporate partners. I would feel so much better and be more effective if, with a little help from technology, I could remember everybody’s names every time I saw them.

But then I begin to wonder: With that chip implanted, would I become progressively worse at naturally remembering names? I’m not sure I like that idea. . . and then I can’t help but think, what is being human about, anyway? Is it really about each of us trying to become more perfect,each in our own way, or is there some broader, less individually-focused aim?

Once we create computers and performance-enhanced humans that can outperform real humans (by 2045, as TIME predicts), will we have found jobs and eradicated poverty for the billion-plus among us who live on less than $2 a day? Will we have the infrastructure in place to provide every human on the planet with access to clean water and a warm bed? Will we have found deterrents to dramatically reduce, if not halt,the black market for sex trafficking? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then these technological advancements will be of true value to humanity. But I have a terrible feeling that in 2045 the answers will still be a resounding “no.”

That’s because there are some human limitations that technology is far from being equipped to fix. It can’t overcome limitations that we ourselves don’t know how to solve. One of our most glaring challenges is our collective inability to build effective organizations—organizations that consistently and reliably perform in a way that exemplifies the best of human performance and values. Each day’s news reinforces this truth—in the Middle East, Washington,Mexico, and in corporate, government and religious headquarters around the world—as startling and saddening revelations emerge about flawed and corrupt organizations.

If we really want to change the world, we need to put more resources into studying and enhancing our shared human capabilities at building organizations—be they firms, government agencies or NGOs. There are many pressing questions:What are the barriers that deter us? Can we develop and use technology in ways that can counter these barriers? What political and social infrastructure do we need to support organization building? What individual-level skills are needed to equip organization-builders and change agents in established bureaucracies? How does leadership rhetoric help us on this road?

Until we become as good at building — and sustaining — effective organizations as we are good at computer programming, we will never realize our full human potential.

I welcome your comments, feedback and ideas at sallyblount@kellogg.northwestern.edu

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