Monday, 23 January 2012

Business design for the visionary within

Roger Martin almost beats a fine idea into submission in this thought-provoking look at the importance of “design thinking” in business. But, as the recent travails of his own client case-studies shows, in large organisations, appeals to visionary thinking tend to fall upon deaf ears.

This is a short book with some big, and very good, ideas. It could have been yet shorter: I felt I’d got the concept from the first chapter, and thereafter Roger Martin does very little with it. This is partly because the idea is self-explanatory, and it’s something you’ll either take to instinctively (if you’re disposed to “design thinking”), or won’t, if youre not.

Martin’s thesis, broadly stated, is that there are three main “phases” any business proposition:
  • Mystery: when an intuition nags at an inventor: the germ of a problem (and, more to the point, its solution) suggests itself and there is no orthodox means for solving it - here is the maximum opportunity for those who can (think of a young Ray Kroc thinking “how do I build scale in my hamburger joint?”);
  • Heuristic: when you’ve figured out a potential solution that does the job, but you don’t necessarily understand the full implications, possibilities and boundaries of your solution; and
  • Algorithm: where you fully understand both the problem/opportunity and its solution, and you are able to commoditise and automate it and the only remaining question is efficiency. 
Roger Martin’s presentation is a convincing as far as it goes: I dare say the boundaries between the three phases are porous, and Martin is convincing that there is a reflexive quality to the propositions: the more they are solved, and the more the richness of an offering is stripped to its essential superstructure, the lower the barriers to competition, the slimmer the margins, and the more compelling is an entrepreneur’s need to look for some more mysteries to solve.

It won’t do, in other words, to solve your mystery, drive it down the “design funnel” as hard and fast as you can, and relentlessly and mindlessly tweak the algorithm to make it run faster. Your own behaviour, if successful enough, itself will present opportunities for others: witness MacDonald’s versus, say, Subway or Starbucks. 

MacDonald’s algorithm stripped away “extraneous” considerations like healthiness, “coolness”, freshness and so on. So Subway was able to differentiate itself on food quality, and Starbucks on the delightful hipness of actually visiting the store (it seems extraordinary in hindsight, doesn’t it!) MacDonald’s was forced by its competitors to reverse back up the funnel to consider other offerings.

The idea is intuitive and makes a lot of sense. Particularly in large organisations there is a tendency towards “backward looking” data, regression analyses and the tried and true: “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” was a truism when I was a youngster. But the passage of time illustrates the corollary of that truism as well: no-one revolutionised their business by buying IBM either. And that, says Roger Martin, is what design thinking makes possible.

“ ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ was a truism when I was a youngster. But the passage of time illustrates its corollary: no-one revolutionised their business by buying IBM either.”

It is certainly my experience that large organisations tend to “reliability” rather than “validity” thinking, and are so keen on moving to algorithm stage that they are inclined to skip the “heuristic”.

So some gripes: Firstly for a short book with an attractive big idea, it was rather hard to keep focussed on it. Something about Roger’s writing style is disengaging. I’m not entirely sure what it is: partly I think he takes a simple idea and beats it to death with self-serving examples (there are extended case studies of Proctor & Gamble, Target, and Research In Motion, all of which he was closely involved with). RIM in particular seems a poor example: yes, they had a big idea and commoditised it (isn’t that what all successful businesses do?) but their subsequent performance has been underwhelming, as they’ve been unable to withstand the march of the smart phones, and while they’re still the dominant player in the business market, they seem to be slowly but surely withering on the vine in the consumer space. (Talk as I write is that RIM is all but a goner, simply awaiting takeover).

On the other hand, Roger’s take on the underlying philosophy of design and business development is polymath enough to take in pragmatists like Dewey and Charles Sanders Pierce. Being a fan of Richard Rorty and other post-modern philosophers this went down well with me: It is a solid basis for the common sense contained in the book: in a contingent, ironic and pragmatic universe, where priorities, economic conditions, consumer preferences and political orthodoxies change like the wind, big, fast, dumb, inflexible machinery seems like a poor suit to be long in. The relentless preference for algorithms (mechanical, reliable) over heuristics (logical, but requiring interpretation and judgment) seems so blindingly obvious that it’s a wonder so much of corporate enterprise is so blind to it. Then again, being a design thinker is not easy: translating your unorthodox point of view to an anally retentive business analyst requires powers of persuasion not all of us have (“use lots of analogies!” Martin cheerfully advises) and you wonder whether design thinking - utopian an idea though it might be - is one that will generally get nowhere near the beating heart of your average multi-national.


Sunday, 22 January 2012


When the universe wakes up, will it smell the coffee? 
Not everyone is as certain as Ray Kurzweil that the End of History is at hand.

L'observatoire de St-Véran by Сергей'

JULIAN JAYNES rounds out his wonderful The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind with a sanguine remark that the idea of science is rooted in the same impulse that drives religion: the desire for "the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause".

Nowhere is this impulse better illustrated, or the scientific mien so resemblant of a religious one, than in Ray Kurzweil's hymn to forthcoming technology, The Singularity Is Near. For if ever a man were committed overtly - fervently, even - to such a unitary belief, it is Ray Kurzweil. And the sceptics among our number could hardly have asked for a better example of the pitfalls, or ironies, of such an intellectual fundamentalism: one one hand, this sort of essentialism features prominently in the currently voguish denouncements of the place of religion in contemporary affairs, often being claimed as a knock-out blow to the spiritual disposition. On the other, it is too strikingly similar in its own disposition to be anything of the sort. Ray Kurzweil is every inch the millenarian, only dressed in a lab-coat and not a habit.

Kurzweil believes that the "exponentially accelerating" "advance" of technology has us well on the way to a technological and intellectual utopia/dystopia (this sort of beauty being, though Kurzweil might deny it, decidedly in the eye of the beholder) where computer science will converge on and ultimately transcend biology and, in doing so, will transport human consciousness into something quite literally cosmic. This convergence he terms the "singularity", a point at which he expects with startling certainty that the universe will "wake up", and many immutable limitations of our current sorry existence (including, he seems to say, the very laws of physics) will simply fall away.

Some, your correspondent included, might wonder whether, this being the alternative, our present existence is all that sorry in the first place.

But not Raymond Kurzweil. This author seems to be genuinely excited about a prospect which sounds rather desolate, bordering on the apocalyptic, in those aspects where it manages to transcend sounding simply absurd. Which isn't often. One thing you could not accuse Ray Kurzweil of is a lack of pluck; but there's a fine line between bravado and foolhardiness which, in his enthusiasm, he may have crossed.
“Kurzweil seems to be genuinely excited about a prospect which sounds desolate, bordering on the apocalyptic, where it manages to transcend sounding simply absurd. Which isn’t often.”
His approach to evolution is a good example. He talks frequently and modishly of the algorithmic nature of evolution, but then makes observations not quite out of the playbook, such as: "the key to an evolutionary algorithm ... is defining the problem. ... in biological evolution the overall problem has always been to survive" and "evolution increases order, which may or may not increase complexity".

But to suppose an evolutionary algorithm has "a problem it is trying to solve" - in other words, a design principle - is to emasculate its very power, namely the facility of explaining how a sophisticated phenomenon comes about *without* a design principle. Evolution works because organisms (or genes) have a capacity - not an intent - to replicate themselves. Nor, necessarily, does evolution increase order. It will tend to increase complexity, because the evolutionary algorithm, having no insight, is unable to "perceive" the structural improvements implied in a design simplification. Evolution has no way of rationalising design except by fiat. The adaptation required to replace an overly elaborate design with more effective but simpler one is, to use Richard Dawkins' expression, an implausible step back down "Mount Improbable". That's generally not how evolutionary processes work: over-engineering is legion in nature; economy of design isn't, really.

This sounds like a picky point, but it gets to the nub of Kurzweil's outlook, which is to assume that technology evolves like biological organisms do - that a laser printer, for example, is a direct evolutionary descendent of the printing press. This, I think, is to superimpose a convenient narrative over a process that is not directly analogous: a laser printer is no more a descendent of a printing press than a mammal is a descendent of a dinosaur. Successor, perhaps; descendant, no. But the "exponential increase in progress" arguments that Kurzweil repeatedly espouses depend for their validity on this distinction.

The "evolutionary process" from woodblock printing to the Gutenberg press, to lithography, to hot metal typing, to photo-typesetting, to the ink jet printer (thanks, Wikipedia!) involves what Kurzweil would call "paradigm shifts" but which a biologist might call extinctions; each new technology arrives, supplements and (usually) obliterates the existing ones, not just by doing the same job more effectively, but - and this is critical - by opening up new vistas and possibilities altogether that weren't even conceived of in the earlier technology - sometimes even at the cost of a certain flexibility inherent in the older technology. That is, development is constantly forking off in un-envisaged, unexpected directions. This plays havoc with Kurzweil's loopy idea of a perfect, upwardly arcing parabola of utopian progress.

It is what I call "perspective chauvinism" to judge former technologies by the standards and parameters set by the prevailing orthodoxy - being that of the new technology. Judged by such an arbitrary standard older technologies will, by degrees, necessarily seem more and more primitive and useless. The fallacious process of judging former technologies by subsequently imposed criteria is, in my view, the source of many of Ray Kurzweil's inevitably impressive charts of exponential progress. It isn't that we are progressing ever more quickly onward, but the place whence we have come falls exponentially further away as our technology meanders, like a perpetually deflating balloon, through design space. Our rate of progress doesn't change; our discarded technologies simply seem more and more irrelevant through time.

Kurzweil may argue that the rate of change in technology has increased, and that may be true - but I dare say a similar thing happened at the time of the agricultural revolution and again in the industrial revolution - we got from Stephenson's rocket to the diesel locomotive within 75 years; in the subsequent 97 years the train's evolution been somewhat more sedate. Eventually, the "S" curves Kurzweil mentions flatten out. They clearly aren't exponential, and pretending that an exponential parabola might emerge from a conveniently concatenated series of "S" curves seems credulous to the point of disingenuity. This extrapolation into a single "parabola of best fit" has heavy resonances of the planetary "epicycle", a famously desperate attempt of Ptolemaic astronomers to fit "misbehaving" data into what Copernicans would ultimately convince the world was a fundamentally broken model. 

If this is right, then Kurzweil's corollary assumption - that there is a technological nirvana to which we're ever more quickly headed - commits the inverse fallacy of supposing the questions we will ask in the future - when the universe "wakes up", as he puts it - will be exactly the ones we anticipate now. History would say this is a naïve, parochial, chauvinistic and false assumption. 
“Assuming there is a technological nirvana to which we’re inevitably headed is to suppose the questions we will ask when the universe “wakes up” will be same the ones we ask now. History would say this is a parochial and chauvinistic assumption.”
And that, I think, is the nub of it. One feels somewhat uneasy so disdainfully pooh-poohing a theory put together with such enthusiasm and such an energetic presentation of data (and to be sure, buried in Kurzweil's breathless prose is plenty of learning about technology which, if even half-way right, is fascinating), but that seems to be it. I suppose I am fortified by the nearby predictions made just four years ago, seeming not to have come anything like true just yet:

"By the end of this decade [i.e., by 2010] computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, with displays built in our eyeglasses and electronics woven into our clothing"

On the other hand I could find scant reference to "cloud computing" or equivalent phenomena like the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing project which spawned schemes like SETI@home in Kurzweil's book. Now here is a rapidly evolving technological phenotype, for sure: hooking up thousands of serially processing computers into a massive parallel network, giving processing power way beyond any technology currently envisioned. It may be that this adaptation means we simply don't need to incur the mental challenge of molecular transistors and so on, since there must, at some point, be an absolute limit to miniaturisation, as we approach it the marginal utility of developing the necessary technology will swan dive just as the marginal cost ascends to the heavens; whereas the parallel network involves none of those limitations. You can always hook up yet another computer, and every one will increase performance.

I suppose it's easy to be smug as I type on my decidedly physical computer, showing no signs of being superseded with VR Goggles just yet and we're already two yeasrs into the new decade, but the point is that the evolutionary process is notoriously bad at making predictions (until, that is, the results are in!), being path-dependent as it is. You can't predict for developments that haven't yet happened. Kurzweil glosses over this shortfall at his theory's cost.


Friday, 20 January 2012

Vanquishing magic by sleight of hand

Douglas Hofstadter’s essay on the incompleteness of loopy logical systems starts out brightly, but makes a disappointing and strangely unimaginative resort to reductionism in the end. Pity.
Philosophy, to those who are disdainful of it, is a sucker for a priori sleights of hand: purely logical arguments which do not rely for grip on empirical reality, but purport to explain it all the same: chestnuts like “cogito ergo sum”, from which Descartes concluded a necessary distinction between a non-material soul and the rest of the world.

Douglas Hofstadter is not a philosopher (though he’s friends with one), and in I am a Strange Loop he is mightily disdainful of the discipline and its weakness for cute logical constructions. All of metaphysics is so much bunk, says Hofstadter, and he sets out to demonstrate this using the power of mathematics and in particular the fashionable power of Gödel’s incompleteness theory.

Observers may pause and reflect on an irony at once: Hofstadter’s method - derived a priori from the pure logical structure of mathematics - looks suspiciously like those tricksy metaphysical musings on which he heaps derision. As his book proceeds this irony only sharpens.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for I started out enjoying this book immensely. Until about halfway I thought I’d award it five stars - but then found it increasingly unconvincing and glib, notably at the point where Hofstadter leaves his (absolutely fascinating) mathematical theorising behind and begins applying it. He believes that from purely logical contortion one may derive a coherent account of consciousness (a purely physical phenomenon) robust enough to bat away any philosophical objections, dualist or otherwise.

Note, with another irony, his industry here: to express the physical parameters of a material thing - a brain - in terms of purely non-material apparatus (a conceptual language). In the early stages, Professor Hofstadter brushes aside reductionist objections to his scheme which is, by definition, an emergent property of, and therefore unobservable in, the interactions of specific nerves and neurons. Yet late in his book he is at great pains to say that that same material thing cannot, by dint of the laws of physics, be pushed around by a non material thing (being a soul), and that configurations of electrons correspond directly to particular conscious states in what seems a rigorously deterministic way (Hofstadter brusquely dismisses conjectures that your red might not be the same as mine). Without warning, in his closing pages, Hofstadter seems to declare himself a behaviourist. Given the excellent and enlightening work of his early chapters, this comes as a surprise and a disappointment to say the least.

Hofstadter’s exposition of Gödel’s theory is excellent and its application in the idea of the “Strange Loop” is fascinating. He spends much of the opening chapters grounding this odd notion, which he says is the key to understanding consciousness as a non-mystical, non-dualistic, scientifically respectable and physically explicable phenomenon. His insight is to root consciousness not in the physical manifestation of the brain, but in the patterns and symbols represented within it. This, I think, is all he needs to establish to win his primary argument, namely that Artificial Intelligence is a valid proposition. But he is obliged to go on because, like Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the Strange Loop threatens to operate like a universal acid and cut through many cherished and well-established ideas. Alas, some of these ideas seem to be ones Douglas Hofstadter is not quite ready to let go. Scientific realism, for example.

The implication of the Strange Loop, which I don’t think Hofstadter denies, is that a string of symbols, provided it is sufficiently complex (and “loopy”) can be a substrate for a consciousness. That is a Neat Idea (though I’m not persuaded it’s correct: Hofstadter’s support for it is only conceptual, and involves little more than hand-waving and appeals to open-mindedness.
“Perhaps, rather than slamming the door on mysticism, Hofstadter has unwittingly blown it wide open. After all, why stop at human consciousness as a complex system?” 
But all the same, some strange loops began to occur to me here. Perhaps rather than slamming the door on mysticism, Douglas Hofstadter has unwittingly blown it wide open. After all, why stop at human consciousness as a complex system? Conceptually, perhaps, one might be able to construct a string of symbols representing God. Would it even need a substrate? Might the fact that it is conceptually possible mean that God therefore exists?

I am being mendacious, I confess. But herein lie the dangers (or irritations) of tricksy a priori contortions. However, Professor Hofstadter shouldn’t complain: he started it.

Less provocatively, perhaps a community of interacting individuals, like a city - after all, a more complex system than a single one, QED - might also be conscious. Perhaps there are all sorts of consciousnesses which we can’t see precisely because they emerge at a more abstract level than the one we occupy.

This might seem far-fetched, but the leap of faith it requires isn’t materially bigger than the one Hofstadter explicitly requires us to make. He sees the power of Gödel’s insight being that symbolic systems of sufficient complexity (“languages” to you and me) can operate on multiple levels, and if they can be made to reference themselves, the scope for endless fractalising feedback loops is infinite. The same door that opens the way to consciousness seems to let all sorts of less appealing apparitions into the room: God, higher levels of consciousness and sentient pieces of paper bootstrap themselves into existence also.

This seems to be a Strange Loop Too Far, and as a result we find Hofstadter ultimately embracing the reductionism of which he was initially so dismissive, veering violently towards determinism and concluding with a behavioural flourish that there is no consciousness, no free will, and no alternative way of experiencing red. Ultimately he asserts a binary option: unacceptable dualism with all the fairies, spirits, spooks and logical lacunae it implies, or a pretty brutal form of determinist materialism.

There’s yet another irony in all this, for he has repeatedly scorned Bertrand Russell’s failure to see the implications of his own formal language, while apparently making a comparable failure to understand the implications of his own model. Strange Loops allow - guarantee, in fact - multiple meanings via analogy and metaphors, and provide no means of adjudicating between them. They vitiate the idea of transcendental truth which Hofstadter seems suddenly so keen on. The option isn’t binary at all: rather, it’s a silly question.

In essence, all interpretations are metaphorical; even the “literal” ones. Neuroscience, with all its gluons, neurons and so on, is just one more metaphor which we might use to understand an aspect of our world. It will tell us much about the brain, but very little about consciousness, seeing as the two operate on quite different levels of abstraction.

To the extent, therefore, that Douglas Hofstadter concludes that the self is that is an illusion his is a wholly useless conclusion. As he acknowledges, “we” are doomed to “see” the world in terms of “selves”; an a priori sleight-of-hand, no matter how cleverly constructed, which tells us that we’re wrong about that (and that we’re not actually here at all!) does us no good at all. Neurons, gluons and strange loops have their place - in many places this is a fascinating book, after all - but they won’t give us any purchase on this debate.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The hero of a thousand phases

I wrote this the week leading up to the Rugby World Cup Finals. Never quite finished it, but it seems a pity to waste it. Substitute Beaver Donald for Cruden for Slade for Carter, and it wasn't a bad shout!

A hero laid low
It is rugby world cup time. When ace All Black fly-half Daniel Carter was felled by an unexpected groin strain, I wrote to a friend:

I think this is going almost perfectly to the script - literally, the monomyth script, formulated by Joseph Campbell out of thousands indigenous of myths and legends, and used as the basis for many of Hollywood's greatest blockbusters. In it, a callow youth, let us call him Colin, wishes to escape the drudgery of life on the home planet. But then he receives the call ... his at the critical point his talismanic leader is laid low, the team suffer near fatal reverses ...

For my trouble, I was accused of smoking something. Undeterred, I elaborated:  

When, with one minute left on the clock, and six points down, camped on his own try-line, the said callow youth Slade intercepts a carelessly flung pass by a French fly half, glides between two colossal Catalonian oxes, flees like a demon horse over the advantage line, the ten metre line, the half way and surges into the French twenty-two, cuts in towards the posts only to unexpectedly confront the ogre Imanol Harinodoquy (who had been slow to pick himself up out of a ruck on the French 22 in a prior phase, and is accordingly well out of position, but happily for the French is perfectly placed to save the day) and then Slade fleetingly catches a glimpse of his fallen hero Carter, hovering ethereally in the stands, urging him on, and so hardened, with a sublime inside step, a heavenly outside step and then, on the five-metre line, with the great Gallic flanker still miraculously shading him, the most brutal fend ever to be delivered by a flyhalf to a forward, Slade crosses the try line under the posts, and converts his own score to finally return the Rugby World Cup to its permanent home - then you'll understand, my friend.

Maui snares the sun
I based my plot on Joseph Cambell's "monomyth", as revealed in his mighty The Hero With a Thousand Faces - in which Campbell distilled a common heroic storyline underlying the mythologies of hundreds of ancient peoples from Gilgamesh and Agamemnon to the Maori myth of Maui snaring the sun. These days, the monomyth is now pressed into the service of Hollywood screenwriters, but it applies to the drama of sporting conflict as well, as the fanciful passage above illustrates. (Fanciful? substitute Cruden for Slade and it might yet be next Saturday's script!)

Why do men find sporting conflict so compelling? Because it affords us the chance of just such a drama: a compelling morality play but with a grim and irresistable advantage: It is real: uncontrived, there is a real chance that the hero will lose; a good man may die: the elaborately woven narrative of myth may be rent asunder.

Welsh Warrior laid low
We have already seen just such a sequence: an outstanding Welsh Warrior, lain low early in the game by the harshest of Old Testament judgments and sent ringingly from the theatre of conflict.

Yet in their desperate hour his men did not yield, and gave no quarter: Without complaint, without rancour, the remaining warriors regrouped and redoubled their efforts, flew into every tackle, drove their opposition into the ground and nearly - so achingly nearly - pulled off the most heroic upsets of the tournament, losing by a point, and even then half a foot low and half a foot wide.

And so to the New Zealanders. What of their heroic record? Firstly, just look at photographer Mike Hewitt's wonderful image to the right: drink it in, for ten seconds, and try then to persuade yourself that this is a live sports photograph and not a Caravaggio altarpiece. Look at the composition, the heroic lines - the diagonals - the enraptured faces turned towards their quest.