Image © Robot & Frank

AI companies need to find their purpose for everyone’s sake

Sam Applebee — Product & purpose, Satalia

Satalia is an optimisation company founded in 2007 by Dr Daniel Hulme. We solve hard problems using data science, optimisation and artificial intelligence, and were named a 2016 Gartner Cool Vendor.

Our purpose is to enable everyone to do the work they love. By sharing the journey that we’re on to understand ourselves and realise our purpose, we hope to inspire others in the AI sphere to be proactive in considering their relationship with society.

Why AI and why now?

Satalia was birthed during a period of relative calm for the Artificial Intelligence (AI) ecosystem. We’ve seen the hype grow exponentially since. Though there have been successive peaks and troughs in the expectations for AI over the last half century, there really seems to be a sense that ‘this time, this is it!’

With an unprecedented amount of investment pouring into the field, many leading thinkers have turned their attention to the societal impact of these new technologies.

Authors including Nick Bostrom and James Baratt have set out fairly bleak pictures of what they expect will happen should the human race build machines with the general intelligence of humans before the right safeguards are in place. Not to mention the joint statement from 8,674 to date, including some of the best known public figures from science and industry, amongst them Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking.

Estimates of when we’ll achieve this level of artificial intelligence vary greatly from a few years to never. But if we carry on along our current trajectory there can be no doubt that tectonic shifts in the socio-industrial landscape will occur. The world of work will change beyond recognition for most people and new forms of industry will be born. And who knows about politics and religion?

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords…

Our new robot overlords?

The introduction of these algorithmic technologies has already produced mild versions of these shifts, ones that we’ve probably all observed in our day to day lives. The effects usually cut both ways. There are winners and losers. But that’s life, isn’t it?

Let’s face it, Uber has made getting from A to B a lot easier for an enormous amount of people. Unless you’re a hard-core trade unionist you’ll probably accept that the net impact has been positive.

However it’s also true that taxi drivers have had a pretty rough ride (Author’s note: there will be no apologies for mediocre puns). The pushback has in some cases literally brought cities to a standstill. This is the sort of societal upheaval that AI technologies can provoke.

London brought to a standstill

Now imagine if Uber-scale disruption happened across all major industries. At the same time. Finding it hard to picture? Us too. It seems such an unfamiliar, faraway concept, but it’s not improbable.

“…imagine if Uber-scale disruption happened across all major industries. At the same time.”

For AI companies — using the term loosely to mean any organisation using machine learning or optimisation in their products, services, or operations — there is a very real imperative to find some way of navigating the social quagmire of disruptive change.

For people not familiar with the mechanics or capabilities of AI technologies the headlines are fairly terrifying:

Artificial Intelligence could kill us all.
You Should Be Afraid of Artificial Intelligence
Steve Wozniak: The Future of AI Is ‘Scary and Very Bad for People’
Stephen Hawking: Artificial intelligence could wipe out humanity

Not to mention that picture of the Terminator that’s always used in the media. It’s sort of ironic since we have much more to fear from super-intelligent software than from humanoid robots.

Not the scariest AI

Nonetheless, if you’re using AI and your goal is to change the world then you’d better make damned sure people understand why.

“…if you’re using AI and your goal is to change the world then you’d better make damned sure people understand why.”

So what is organisational purpose?

The concept of organisational purpose has been floating around for a few years now. Expert practitioners in the field are helping companies to attract top talent and drive innovation. On the whole though, most of us mortals haven’t a clue what purpose is, how to establish your organisation’s purpose, or what to do with one once you’ve got one!

Fear not, you are not alone! We started exploring organisational purpose in earnest perhaps only twelve months ago. Our understanding of the theory and its applications is far from complete. Nevertheless we thought that by sharing some of our learning and experiences we might open the door for others to find their purpose too.

Purpose is not usually a mission or a vision (though it might be close), and it’s not quite corporate responsibility either. Those deal with the what and how of your business. Purpose is your organisation’s why. Why does your organisation exist? Why are your people working together? Why do they make the decisions that they do?

“Purpose is your organisation’s why.”

Simon Sinek nicely packages up the concept of why into ‘golden circles’:

Simon Sinek — Start With Why

Purpose consultancy Within People have put together an excellent slide deck giving guidance on understanding and defining your organisation’s purpose:

A guide to finding purpose © Within People

What’s Satalia’s purpose?

To some extent we’re still figuring it out. We’ve been through several successive waves of thought and have most recently settled on the notion that we exist to enable everyone to do the work they love. This works in two ways. Inside and outside.

“…we exist to enable everyone to do the work they love”

Enabling our people to do the work that they love

Looking inward we tried to understand what binds our merry band of technologists, academics and entrepreneurs together as a company. The word company derives from a group pursuing the same purpose, after all. We came up with all sorts of clever and noble sounding reasons, but after a few weeks of reflection each one fell apart as simply wishful thinking.

The breakthrough came when we swept aside our desires to be good people and just focused on our selfish motivations. This might seem counterintuitive. It felt like it! But what we discovered is that we’re attracted to work at Satalia because we have the freedom to do what we want.

Astronauts in our own ways

We’ve spent countless hours researching, designing, testing and implementing non-traditional organisational structures to make this feasible. It’s been extremely challenging at times but the self-managing structure that we’ve adopted will allow us to grow the company whilst retaining our freedom.

Self-determination is a key factor in motivation and satisfaction at work, and we’re by no means the only company trying to solve the problem of enabling it at scale. But freedom to choose what you want to do is no good if you’re out of a job.

“…freedom to choose what you want to do is no good if you’re out of a job.”

Enabling everyone to do the work that they love

As the sections above might suggest, we’re acutely aware of the potential for our technology to displace people from their jobs or take over key activities.

To this some people say “Great! I hate that part of my job. Let a computer do it and I’ll have more time to deal with other things.” Others who are specialised in solving particular types of complex problem — people typically in high demand — are mortified by the idea of a computer doing their job.

In the short term we’re concerned with the immediate social impact of companies adopting our tech. Whose jobs will be at risk or augmented? How large will the impact be?

The work you love today

Companies might be interested in optimisation because of cost savings. Fair enough. But if that means laying off a team of people who loved their jobs and will find it difficult to find work elsewhere, that’s not cool.

We’re not in the business of replacing humans with computers. We’re in the business of designing and building high performance tools. So we ask ourselves questions like:

  • To what extent does it make sense to remove human decision making from the problem we’re trying to solve with optimisation?
  • What is this client’s attitude toward taking care of its people?
  • How can we raise our clients’ awareness of the social impact of our technology?
  • How can we help our clients to plan for redeployment of those affected?
  • How can we increase, rather than limit, the options available to those impacted?
  • Can we train employees whose value to their company is at risk to be expert operators of the new optimisation tools?
“We’re not in the business of replacing humans with computers.”

To answer these questions and achieve positive outcomes for people, we need to deal with more than one part of our clients’ businesses. We need to inspire senior leadership and engage with HR (or People) functions. As well as those on the front line who will bear the brunt of the impact if we fail to live up to our purpose.

Looking further into the future the imperative is even greater. As optimisation and other AI technologies become ubiquitous in society we may find that there aren’t many jobs left for humans to do at all.

Even better than your mum’s cooking

Work that you’ll love in the future

Whether people hate their work or have found their true calling, human beings have an inherent need to contribute to their social group in some way. It gives us a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose.

Even the most seemingly mundane of jobs can do the trick. We’ve seen this in studies on the elderly and their mental health. Who are we to take this away for the sake of efficiency?

So, we’re confronted with a difficult dynamic. We are going to have to think very deeply about how we value and reward people’s contributions to society when many types of labour that were previously high in value become commoditised.

“We are going to have to think very deeply about how we value and reward people’s contributions to society…”

Why is it so hard to earn a living as an artist or musician? Why are teaching and nursing some of the most personally rewarding professions, but also some of the lowest paid. Does it always have to be so? Can’t we have both?

Will musicians always be poorly paid?

The opportunity is to use AI technology to free people from drudgery. But the risk is that we don’t think carefully enough about the nature of work, or create the conditions in society to shift the current paradigm.

To harness the full positive potential of optimisation and AI, we need to enable people to do the work they love, both now and in the future.

What’s next?

Whilst we’ve come on strides in our understanding we’re still a long way from embedding our purpose into all of our activities. Our ambition is to integrate this thinking into each of our business functions. To have it woven into our cultural fabric at the most fundamental level.

“What’s important is that all of us in the artificial intelligence ecosystem take action.”

Certainly, our thinking will evolve as we learn new things and the world changes around us. What’s important is that all of us in the artificial intelligence ecosystem take action. Action to prevent the wonderful technologies that we’re creating from doing harm. Action to make sure that we create fair and universally positive outcomes. And action to understand ourselves before we are sailing in ships that are pulled by currents beyond our control.

Drop us a line to talk problems, purpose or possibilities any time.

Love from Team Satalia

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