The award winning movie, The Imitation Game, based on Andrew Hodges’ definitive biography of Alan Turing, won rave reviews for its portrayal of a rare genius. Turing not only invented modern computing, but helped win World War II by breaking the German Enigma code and was a pioneer in artificial intelligence.
Even today, it’s difficult to have a serious discussion about information technology without eventually hitting on Turing machines, Turing tests or some other concept that he invented. It’d be hard to think of anyone who matches his impact on information technology.
So it’s curious, to say the least, that his country has fared so poorly in the industry that Turing helped create. There is no British Apple, Google or IBM. In fact, only one company on the FTSE 100 is a computer firm. The story of how that happened is more than a mere historical curiosity, but offers important lessons for how to foster technology and innovation.
In 1905, a young Albert Einstein shocked the world. In one miracle year, he overturned the prevailing assumptions of his day and changed how we see the universe, transforming forever how we think of time, space, mass, energy and light. He paved the way for our modern world.
Yet 22 years later it was Einstein’s turn to be caught in the mire of his own assumptions. In a famous round of debates with Niels Bohr, he was unable to accept the consequences of the quantum world that, in fact, he had made possible in 1905, insisting that “God does not play dice with the universe.”
Einstein’s problem wasn’t grasping the importance of a new idea, but accepting an entirely new platform for physics—one which led to things like lasers, microprocessors and iPhones —and it doomed the rest of his career. Today, we all face a similar dilemma. New platforms require us not to merely alter our behavior, but our assumptions about how the world works.
One Friday afternoon in 2002, long before his company became a household verb, Larry Page walked into the office kitchen and posted some printouts of results from Google’s AdWords engine. On top, in big bold letters, he wrote, “THESE ADS SUCK.”
At most places, this would be seen as cruel—an arrogant executive publicly humiliating his hapless employees for shoddy work—but not at Google. In fact, his unusual act was a show of confidence, defining a tough problem that he knew his talented engineers would want to solve.
In their new book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg describe what happened next. By early Monday morning, a group of engineers sent out an email that not only resolved the problem, but helped transform Google into a profit machine. The episode exemplifies 4 principles that enable the company to attack problems so effectively.
It’s become fashionable for politicians to say that they aren’t scientists. While these are usually statements of fact, they are still curious. Certainly, when it comes to issues of finance or war, we don’t see elected officials lining up to say, “I’m not an economist” or “I’m not a soldier.”
Science is what separates the kook from the professional. People who talk about aliens in flying saucers are usually written off as lunatics. Yet serious scientists are able to attract public and public funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) looking for alien life.
On the surface, the term “scientific” seems to be a fairly arbitrary distinction. After all, alien hunters and SETI scientists are both engaged in a search for truth, but the difference is that the work of scientists, when properly done, is reproducible and testable and that makes all the difference. Science matters not because of its greater truth, but its lesser solipsism.
In the mid-20th century, Linus Pauling was one of the world’s most celebrated scientists. His discovery of the structure of hemoglobin and other biological molecules created an entirely new field of science and, when he focused his ample talents on deciphering the structure of DNA, no one doubted that he would be the one to do it.
But he wasn’t. In fact, it was two relatively unknown researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick who would win that particular prize. Yet what was really astounding was the way they did it. While other scientists spent their time in the lab, Watson and Crick played with models and talked about them with each other.
What seemed like child’s play to most academics was actually the best way to imagine possibilities and see how their ideas reflected diverse—and often confusing—empirical clues. Today, a growing contingent of academics believes that games can have the same effect on how children learn and a company called Kidaptive is determined to prove them right.
Leadership is a tough business, especially in the digital era. In earlier times, managers paid their employees to perform tasks and directed them how, where and when to do them. These days, however, professionals are paid to solve problems and think creatively about products, strategies and new technologies.
So the role of leaders has changed a great deal. It is no longer enough to merely plan and direct action, today we must inspire and empower belief. That’s how you attract the people, partners and customers you need to compete and win.
The failure to inspire and empower belief is what drove the recent debacle at The New Republic. Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, appeared to be a savior when he first purchased the troubled magazine in 2012. Yet last month he faced a full fledged mutiny. The story highlights five important lessons for what it takes to manage an enterprise today.
As we enter the year 2015, it seems like the headlines have never been worse. A conflict in Ukraine has sparked a new Cold War between Russia and the west. Deadly terrorist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram threaten entire states. The Ebola outbreak threatened to become a global pandemic.
And economically, except for the US—which just reported 5% GDP growth for the 3rd quarter and appears to be taking off—the rest of the developed world, including Japan and the EU, still remains mired in recession. It almost seems like we might never get back on track.
Yet still, despite these data points, we’re doing pretty well. While the problems we face have never been greater, our capacity to meet challenges is outpacing them. That might not grab headlines (for example, the decline of Ebola received far less coverage than its rise), but, in the end, it’s what really matters. Here’s why we can be optimistic about the future in 2015.
Technology revolutions tend to come in waves. Personal computers. The Internet. Search engines. When pathbreaking new ideas first arrive, they set the tech world afire, but mostly bore and confuse everybody else, who go on with their lives much as before, mostly oblivious to the change around them.
Gartner calls this the Hype Cycle. There is an initial technology trigger that leads to inflated expectations, then disillusionment as high-flying startups fail and initiatives sputter. Eventually the technology gets back on course and real productivity is unleashed.
Although we’ve been hearing about the cloud for a while now, it’s mostly been for tech geeks and big corporations. Over the next year, however, the cloud will burst into an avalanche of products and services that will be incredibly cheap and easy to use. That will make 2015 the year that some incredibly advanced technologies start making a real impact on the rest of us.
Wow! What a difference a year makes! Twelve months ago, there was no war in Ukraine, oil was over $100 a barrel, the US economy was heading into its first quarter of negative growth since the financial crisis and Bill Cosby seemed like someone you’d leave your kids with.
Now, the US economy is growing at about 4%, oil has dropped by 40% and the ruble is crashing. The US has renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, there’s been a historic deal with China on climate change and unemployment has dropped nearly a full point.
And it was also another great year for Digital Tonto. As this blog goes into its sixth year, I want to thank everyone for your continued support. Some of you I’ve gotten to know personally, while others simply come here to read an article now and then. Whichever is the case, I greatly appreciate it. Here’s my top posts for 2014. Have a wonderful year!
Every year, in retrospect, takes on a theme. Usually more by serendipity than by design, events bunch up and collide, forming a trend that almost seems to have been preordained, although, in fact, nobody could have seen it coming.
This past year saw a number of such collisions. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have upended the European order set in place a generation ago. The US has moved from being ground zero of the global financial crisis to the epicenter of its recovery. Energy has gone from global shortage to global glut.
In many ways, it’s been a pivotal year, which may be why a number of very smart, innovative leaders decided to publish books. I think when we look back, we’ll consider 2014 to be a year that changed our thinking significantly in a number of areas. As in past years, this list reflects what I’ve read and written about over the last 12 months. Have a great holiday!