Preparing for the next digital revolution at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

Lindsey Anderson, Chair, MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, opens the event in Cambridge, MA

Lindsey Anderson, Chair, MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, opens the event in Cambridge, MA

This past Wednesday, May 21, I attended the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium for the first time. The theme was “Are you ready for the next digital revolution?” Lindsey Anderson, event chair, told us in his opening remarks that we should all be thinking about the digital revolution because of two concepts: exponential growth of technology and convergence of global markets. Although the event was directed at chief information officers (CIOs), the topics attracted a broader audience of over 700 people, who were all connected with, or excited about, this emerging digital technology. Anyone, in almost any role, who is interested in building a successful business over the next few years would have benefited from being at this event.

The issue facing every business is that the world is becoming programmable, so software is critical for customer satisfaction and brand differentiation. Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, during the academic panel, compared the first machine age, which augmented power systems during the industrial revolution, with the second machine age, which is augmenting control systems during this digital revolution. Due to the rapid pace of technological change, many businesses will be disrupted and will have difficulty keeping pace. Peter Weill suggested that the best defense against disruption is to build a great business: focus on products, delivery systems, and customer experience. Over and over speakers made the point that business success will depend on engaging customers and providing an outstanding experience. This is not easy in a world that is becoming ever more complex. By 2020, just to quote one statistic, we were told that 57,000 new “things” will be added to the internet every second. Brook Colangelo, in a later session, made a remark that summarized the discussion, “There is no business without IT right now . . . we don’t support business: we are part of the business.”

Topics at the symposium included, but went beyond, cloud, analytics, mobile, social and security. While these topics remain important, the future of digital business includes nanobots, wearables and ingestibles. Today, the health of farm animals can be monitored by having each animal ingest a tiny device. In five years, every doctor will get a second opinion from “Dr. Watson” (the IBM supercomputer). The “internet of things” will soon be a 19 trillion dollar industry with 20 billion online devices by 2020. Some say that today’s “cloud” will be replaced by tomorrow’s “fog.” Huge opportunities will emerge to develop applications, address privacy and security concerns, and help people evolve with this changing culture. Dr. Dieter Haban says that we’re at the beginning of endless possibilities.

What is a chief information officer (CIO) to do? Rebecca Rhoads suggested that they must shift from a technological focus to a business focus. As business leaders, they must align around outcomes, vision, and possibilities. That is, tell a story, capture people’s imagination, and transform the organization. Successful CIOs will excel at communication, innovation and creativity. Adriana Karaboutis says that “to succeed as a CIO, embrace change and make change happen; embrace how consumers drive digital disruption.” She says to use technology and data to create meaningful connections, with the customer at the center. Drive growth in the digital enterprise by empowering the customer: engage with customers in the way that they live their lives.

Some amount of fear always accompanies new technologies, due to concerns about security, privacy or business continuity. Nevertheless, the hope that technology will bring increased value and competitive advantage traditionally balanced this fear. Narinder Singh suggests that for many “fear vs. hope” has been replaced by “fear vs. fear.” That is, many now balance the fear of making a mistake with technology against the fear that the digital disruption will leave their company behind. One coping strategy is to embrace change and innovate. Chip Gliedman warns that a common complaint about information technology (IT) is that everything takes too long; moving forward, agility will be the key indicator of value. Adriana Karaboutis says, “IT is not a ship,” and replaced her IT steering committee with a business architecture team. IT does not support the business, IT is the business. F. Thaddeus Arroyo, the 2014 MIT CIO Leadership Award Winner, says that AT&T set the goal that by 2020 80% of all interactions would be digital. To support this, he expects 90% of all his IT professionals to evolve into new roles to cope with this changing landscape. Instead of limiting themselves to technology concerns, CIOs in the future will need to be focused on business outcomes as well.

A highlight of the symposium for me was when a large cardboard box was wheeled on to the stage and we were asked to imagine a future world where artificial intelligence could match human intelligence well enough to do all forms of labor. For many people in the room, this was no longer a question of “if,” it was only a question of “when.” Professor Thomas W. Malone said that he does not expect such machines to emerge in his lifetime. Nevertheless, the experts on stage urged us to grapple with the new ethical and legal challenges that will accompany machine intelligence. Imagine a machine that sends you a speeding ticket before you can even touch the brake. Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland is concerned that laws could become digital and automatic, challenging human judgment. The implications of such developments need to be carefully considered. Isaac Asimov was thinking about these issues long ago, and perhaps the time has come to dust off his three laws of robotics. In the near future, as a practical matter, each machine will need to be associated with a human that will take responsibility for its actions. Artificial intelligence is evolving, and it will be up to us to guarantee that machines uphold human values and ethics.

The truth is that no one knows how fast these changes will come. What we do know is that technological innovation will outpace government policies and laws. As the pace accelerates, our society will struggle to adapt and keep up. Rebecca Rhoads urged us to carry out change respectfully and thoughtfully.

Despite all that was discussed, there was a sense of optimism that our future could be bright. Speakers urged us to embrace change and drive innovation to grow professionally. Creative life-long learners will always be in demand. Our youth will need to be computer literate and become the “captain of their own ship.” In brief, have fun with the emerging technology because we are living in an exciting time.

Although machines have emerged that can beat the best humans at chess or Jeopardy, researchers have discovered that a well-formed team can beat the best solo human or machine. Such a team can be all humans or a combination of humans and machines; either way, we are stronger collectively. Further, a team’s strength is not determined by the raw intelligence of its members. Instead, Professor Thomas Malone tells us that the team’s strength depends on team members having high social intelligence, as well as a willingness to have everyone participate. As a side note, teams with a high proportion of women tend to do well, likely because the average social intelligence is higher for that gender.

Andrew McAfee gave the closing keynote. He talked about how teams of the future will combine humans and machines. He chose computer chess as an example. We all know that the best computer can now beat the best human. In “freestyle chess,” however, mixed teams of humans and computers produce new and surprising results. A team of good (not outstanding) players, aided by software running on a personal computer, can beat the best solo human or machine. Collective intelligence is the new frontier.

A painting made by Harold Cohen’s computer program, AARON. Photo by Conall O’Brien

A painting made by Harold Cohen’s computer program, AARON. Photo by Conall O’Brien

McAfee is reluctant to put any limits on artificial intelligence; when it comes to computer ability, his mantra has become “never say never.” New capabilities are emerging. For example, emotion sensing software is available that works as well as the “average guy.” Improvements are needed, but that’s not bad for a machine. He also showed examples of paintings that were completely machine generated; artificial intelligence is moving beyond routine tasks and beginning to emulate creativity. Nevertheless, humans, he believes, will still have roles to play as we learn to work with intelligent machines. Although economic theory and government policy are lagging behind the technological curve, he believes that we will adapt and enjoy great benefits. While there will be difficulties, such as coping with employment concerns, we have the opportunity to build an economy of abundance. McAfee cautioned us that protectionism is not the answer. He said that we should not attempt to protect the status quo, nor should we expect egalitarianism. Instead, our guiding principles should be innovation and inclusiveness. Personally, I would add one more: integrity.

The event ended with a reception at the innovation showcase where ten cutting edge companies displayed their products for Enterprise IT. Four books were on display:

  • The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
  • Social Physics, by Alex Pentland
  • Big Data @ Work, by Thomas H. Davenport
  • The Innovators Path, by Madge M. Meyer

In addition, many others have written about this event. Below is a partial list of articles (there is also a list on MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Site News and Press Coverage page):

Happy reading and be sure to let me know your thoughts on the next digital revolution. Are you ready?




2 thoughts on “Preparing for the next digital revolution at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

  1. Pingback: The year in review | Commentary by Allan

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Highlights from the 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium | Commentary by Allan

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