‘House of Beautiful Business’​: in a World of Machines, Human Authenticity is the Ultimate Business Differentiator.

I set off to Portugal this month to visit the House of Beautiful Business 2019 in Lisbon. It’s best described as a series of ‘salons’ curated by the incredibly curious and creative Till GruscheMonika Jiang and Tim Leberecht, with a purpose to bring to those who attended insight into what it will take to build truly beautiful businesses of the future – from a societal, organisational and personal perspective. Asking questions such as:

How can we build an economy enabling freedom and prosperity for all, in fairness?

How can we redefine value and collaborate more effectively – with humans and machines – to create it?

How can we maintain a coherent identity and foster a sense of belonging in business?

Set in the historic and beautiful Academy of Sciences high on the hill in Lisbon, these questions cast the scene for what was to be an incredible learning experience. This was no traditional conference – no lanyards, no programme, no powerpoint, no signage – it was more an orchestrated sequence of moments with imaginative leaders, curious creators, business romantics and humanistic futurists roaming about from room to room, feasting on new ideas. Pretty cool.

Going in I had some ideas about robots, AI and the future of business – but no specific learning goal. I was in full divergent mindset, like a sponge I was hoping to learn some new stuff I could apply to the next iteration of my business, and augment my normal modality of learning by ‘doing and experimenting’.

What I got was a whole lot more. In this post I’m going to attempt to smash down the 5 days of intensive learning into a single post, as my time spent amongst such brilliant minds and the lessons forthwith, is worthy of paying forwards.

So here’s my top learnings, from just 10 of 100 speakers expressing an insight into our collective future and how to design sustainable businesses that embrace change (apologies if I’ve misquoted anyone from my hand scrawled notes!):

Robots have the ability to help us ‘become the people we aspire to be’ – Jin Joo Lee, Social AI Designer, Amazon. Through her work originally at MIT and more recently at Amazon, Jin is revolutionising the way the world thinks about robots. Originally on the team that created Jibo (the world’s first social robot) she is now creating in-home social robots that can support people as Coaches (building motivation) Ally’s (to increase engagement) Companions (modelling social behaviour) and Listeners (with positive attentiveness). She shifted my perceptions of the value of robots with her example of “Reading with Rover” where a Listening robot can help children overcome social anxieties of reading aloud, by reading with a robot that only gives ‘positive attentiveness’. Because robots show managed or low emotion, it enables people to explore things that are otherwise fearful without judgement. This poses the question however, that given people would rather (in some circumstances) work with robots, what does this do for human connectivity?

“AI learns from repetition & patterns, humans learn from context & meaning” – Mariana Lin, Creative Director of Siri @ Apple. As one of the founding designers of Siri, Mariana (who describes herself on LinkedIn as ‘being a person’) got to experience first hand the complexities of creating a listening post that attempts to match in real-time the diversity of human language and intention. In a technology world that is obsessed with ‘reducing friction’ she believes we are chasing the wrong paradigm. That which makes us uniquely human is our inconsistencies, our ability to change our way of speaking and being fluidly, depending on context and meaning. And given that AI learns from patterns, the more we stay ‘patternless’ – the less AI will ever have a chance to truly become human. As AI is driven by logic and struggles to interpret emotion, the goal of making the perfectly replicable human machine will remain a mystery, if we ‘remain weird’, remain human and stop the relentless pursuit for consistency.

“If there is something you really – really- want to do, then no one can stop you. If they can stop you, it’s not what you really want to do” – Dara Dotz, Co-Founder Field Ready. Possibly my favourite speaker at the House, Dara is a radical innovator. Prior to forming Field-Ready she was the Human Factors Lead for ‘Made in Space’. Think about it – why would you want to be an Astronaut in space, relying on people shipping stuff you need to you, from earth? Dara attacked this problem through becoming one of the first designers to train space teams via NASA to use 3D printing, to make what they need, out in the galaxy. True story. This led her to found FieldReady – with the principle that everyone should be able to have ‘what they need, where they need and when they need it’. Her team now trains everyday people in war zones such as Haiti and Syria in how to use ‘everyday objects’ to solve extreme problems, such as lifting concrete in bomb sites to free trapped survivors. This is prototyping on steroids and proves that we all have within us the means to survive even in the most extreme environments, with a creative spirit and the right tools. Inspiring is an understatement.

“We have to focus on what we have in common, not what makes us different” – Mathieu Lefevre, CEO MoreinCommon. Mathieu Lefevre spoke to the idea that if we focus more on what unites us vs what divides us we will have less binary ideologies, journalism and politics, and therefore the perception gap that forces us to ‘choose sides’ will diminish. He is CEO of MoreinCommon a non-profit group working to strengthen the forces that bring us together. More in Common has conducted detailed mapping of polarisation and the landscape of public attitudes in the United States and Western Europe. and has found that traditional polling (of Y/N or Right / Wrong) forces polarity and exacerbates the need for debate, when in fact if we examine more closely what we have in common, it leads faster to a dialogue of values and commonalities.

“CEOs are 50% more prone to depression & anxiety than the general population. It shows up as lack of expression & emotion, exhaustion that cannot be remedied, and a lack of vitality”Dr Srini Pillay, CEO Neurobusiness Group. A Harvard trained psychiatrist and brain researcher, Srini gave us a healthy reminder of the impact the environment of business can have on humanism and our ability to show up authentically. He believes that with increased focus as leaders on our conscious communication, we will be able to ‘block unconscious fears that disrupt fluent thinking’ and therefore be more authentic and vulnerable in our style, creating more meaningful relationships. “Opting out of trying to create an aspirational, value driven life – is not an option anymore, nor is it sustainable”, he says. Based on his research he believes the blocking of our true and authentic self in the workplace, is a major driver of stress for leaders.

“The future of innovation is about what is going to matter. Meaning, is what matters”, Kate O’Neill, Founder KO Insights. In her book ‘Tech Humanist’ Kate explores the space between human needs and digital enablement. She believes that the opportunity for value-based digitisation is only going to occur when we can replicate what truly matters for humans. And what mattes for us is primarily something that brings us a positive meaningful experience. We crave meaning through many channels; cosmic, existential, purpose, truth, patterns, significance, connection and more. How might computers match this search for meaning? Through mapping what is significant to us and finding metaphors that replicate those experiences. She cited a great example of how robots can help you pull products off shelves in grocery stores, but which at the same time disables our sense of meaning to help others (less able) to do so. Her focus is on how we use technology only to design meaningful experiences and not allow “absurdity or obscurity to be the thing that scales”, or we are not adding any societal or purposeful value through technology, we are in fact eroding it.

“People who are too perfect, are untrustworthy. We need to see vulnerability and emotion. Therefore generating trust with a machine, requires a powerful feedback loop”Mark Sagar, Founder Soul Machines. Famous originally for his work through WETA studies on King Kong, Mark has a unique take on the development of human avatars, through his time spent deep in technical analysis of facial and muscle movements to replicate in machines, the emotions of mammals – and now humans. He is obsessed with how you ‘create the sense of a soul’ in a machine. Key to this he believes is not to make any machine appear to perfect, as it projects dis-trust. Soul Machines mission is to meet their commercial customers expectations by creating digital humans that are not only more task effective than humans, but that make you feel at ease through incorporating feedback loops (dialogue and interaction) that create intimacy, trust, and a sense of collusion. And that subsequently allow the machine to become more human like. And if that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I don’t know what will!

“The struggle of our age is to reset capitalism, to be measured on Purpose. Ideologies set on creating any kind of ‘new utopia’, simply lead to catastrophes”Sir Paul Collier, British Economist. What an honour to sit and listen to one of the world’s greatest economists, speaking to his new book The Future of Capitalism. Paul spoke to the underlying aggression and fear we are now witnessing in modern economies and how we might shift the evolution of capitalism therefore off ‘auto-pilot’. We could do this by firstly by shifting power away from ‘cities and back to communities’ – creating a more widely distributed system of power, where not all thinking and ‘tacit knowledge’ is coming from the same pool of people who are fundamentally biased in terms of knowledge and skills. How might we bring productivity to places where ‘people feel they belong’, enabling thriving to occur spatially not just digitally. And secondly by supporting a shift away from a singular focus economically on measuring purely ‘return on investment’ to including ‘return on impact’. Creating a more healthy economy that satisfies multiple stakeholder interests – shareholders as well as a diverse set of employees, customers and communities – without the need for trade-offs. Read the book!

“Humans live in a world of obscurity – machines live in a world of specificity”Helen Edwards, Co-Founder at Sonder Scheme. Helen (an ex Kiwi now running SonderScheme, a global business out of Oregon) illuminated the power of machines in pattern seeking. She cited the example of our inability to remember things such as “the person you sat next to on a plane last week, and what they told you / you learned from them”. We forget people, their faces, and their stories. Machines don’t. They scan and save and can recall all data they are shown, almost perfectly, anytime. The power of AI comes in the ability to offer three types of ‘machine based learning services’. Firstly ‘Supervised Learning’ – where the human teaches the machine a pattern, and then through supervision, the machine will be able to find existing and create new patterns. Secondly – ‘Unsupervised Learning’ where we learn from the patterns machines automatically see and show us, that we can’t see. And lastly ‘Reinforcement Learning’ where the machines discover for themselves through undertaking experiments, unexpected outcomes that are probably otherwise unseeable to the human eye, and then reinforces and repeats that pattern through human experience.

“Subversion starts with ourselves, and living our values. Less aesthetics, more ethics”Adah Parris, Futurist & Cultural Strategist. Adah is a remarkable human. That I’m sure would be the one thing we would agree on if you met her. She lives in the future and sees things none of us can even imagine. Through her work on Cyborg Shamanism (humans search for a new religion – something greater than us – through the use of technology), she believes that with the aid of technology we may create a new spiritual consciousness, about what it means to be human, because we are trapped in a singular view currently of reality and how humanism works. She spent 5 years mapping the concept of technology as a tool (for example, to replicate lucid dreaming) which might help us discover the unknown about the human spirit, mind and consciousness. Her work started after a deep look at her own values and how she can put those more into practice in her life and her interactions with others. And as a final message, I thought I would share her values as they are quintessentially human:

Live with TRUST (reciprocity without ego) PLAY (focus on learning & growth, be passionate and curious) ACTIVISM (find something we want to change for greater good and make a contribution) DIVERSITY (collective intelligence from difference), and HUMILITY (be humble and vulnerable). Namaste.

If you’re interested in how to implement some of these ideas, and build a business for your employees that is sustainable and helps people plan careers that are purposeful, or help people pivot and develop career plans that embrace technology combined with their human values, we should talk.

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