What Hidden Figures Taught Me About AI

**It must be stated that I am NOT demeaning the actual intent of the movie in this blog. The true meaning of this lovely film is of course the story about three phenomenal women who beat all the odds, and I would never intend to take away from that. This is simply another spin that I took out of it from my personal professional experience.**

Alright, alright. I know I’m a little late to the game here to be writing about the hit movie “Hidden Figures,” but I just recently saw it and was absolutely amazed. First off, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it – the story is magnificent, the acting is superb, all in all it’s a wonderful experience that I highly recommend.

There are so many things that could discuss about the movie, (although most of them have already been written about) but the thing that stood out the most to me was the subtle “history repeats itself” adage around technology. With the uptick in technological advancement and usage across all ages and industries, there have been several “anti-technology” shows (Black Mirror is a personal favorite of mine) that all but scream at us to be aware of the dangers that a more digitally connected world can have if we’re not careful. This is based entirely on fear – and the fears range all over depending on each person’s personal biases. Truthfully, digitization is ultimately a wonderful thing, and Hidden Figures shows us that. What was so beautiful about it though is that it didn’t intend to be pushing this message, but it did, so tastefully in fact that it almost slipped past me.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I do have to say that I will give away some “spoilers” so if you’re the type who gets in fights with friends or significant others about giving away the ending, you’re probably not going to want to read this. No hard feelings, I’ll see you on the next blog.

For those of you who haven’t and either have no intention to see it or don’t mind hearing the ending, I’ll give you a quick synopsis:

Three brilliant African-American female mathematicians worked for NASA while the USA was trying to beat Russia in the Space game and were pivotal in getting us into orbit and safely returning. Taking place in the 1960’s, them being both women and not Caucasian, their involvement was largely unknown to the general public and thusly what should have been their glory days were celebrated by everyone but them.

Working in information technology and having a fairly expansive network here on social media, one of the things dominating my newsfeed is the development and strides made in Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and Robotics. Everyone seems to have an opinion on one of these three topics, and rightfully so. It’s almost political in a way – you have your hardcore “This is the future and we need to embrace it” adopters, the “we need to be wary of this” professionals, and you also have people somewhat in the middle who more like to observe it and see what happens than take a defining stand for or against it. There isn’t anything wrong with any stance, it ultimately comes down to what you’re comfortable with and what you most care about. This isn’t a new notion either, with anything hot and new there will be mixed reviews based on background and personal biases. “You can’t please everyone” is a cliché for a reason.

So what does this have to do with Hidden Figures? Patience, young grasshopper, we’re getting there. (Last chance to turn back before spoilers.)

About halfway through the movie, they introduce the IBM, the first “computer” as we know it today. A massive machine that takes up an entire room of the station, so large in fact that they had to bust a wall down in one scene to even get it in the room. This is a hilarious concept to those of us who grew up in this generation, with a hand held device that has more processing power in it than this massive machine, but keeping in mind the time period – NASA was way ahead of the curve technologically.

There are rumors that circulate the “computing” department that this machine will be replacing all kinds of jobs and it makes everyone antsy about their job security. Such is the same with any sort of serious innovation, with change comes both excitement and anxiety. One of the women decides to get ahead of the curve and studies how to operate the machine and pressing her team to do the same. She actually is the only resource who truly knows how to make the IBM run, and ends up running the department.

To further the anxiety, with the machine up and running finally, the main woman’s story we follow (Katherine, actress portraying her pictured above) who is one of the most brilliant mathematicians NASA had ever seen, actually ends up being taken off the orbit project entirely. Although her contribution to the project was insurmountable, with this machine’s ability to compute equations at a fraction of the time than a human can, there was no longer a need for her to be used in this department.

“Great, that means that with all this AI and automation, thousands of people will be out of jobs soon, right?” Wait, wait – story’s not over.

Right at the 11th hour before they’re sending the man into orbit it comes to light that the IBM has inconsistent calculations for the coordinates for him to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The issue here is that without the exact coordinates (give or take ~20 ft) he would burn up upon reentry. That’s obviously pretty serious – they’ve been doing all of this work just to find out that there’s a very large chance that he won’t survive the mission.

“Go get the smart girl.”

They call for Katherine and have her do the calculations manually and guess what? She gets him home safely! There’s a lot of drama that happens during the mission, but she does it and was a hero for it.

At this point you’ve probably already figured out where I’m going with this, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t complete the thought. History does in fact repeat itself because regardless of the change or innovation, humans still function the same way now that they did back then. We have different caveats, but our basic thought processes are the same. Something new comes in and we get excited and scared at the same time. What does this mean for me? Is this going to help or hurt me?

I represent a company who has amazing services, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to have this conversation. So many people feel threatened when services are brought up – “wait, that’s my job now, if you sign this contract I’m cutting myself out of a job.” Not true, what it does take away is the tier-1 issues so the actual brains of the organization will be able to innovate rather than maintain. We are constantly talking about how to get ahead, how to create. If you’re not doing that, your company won’t be around in ten years.

We talk about the “human error” a lot in IT, because it DOES in fact have a large part to play in breaches, oversights, etc. But what are machines built by? Humans! That’s right, we build them, so they’re as good as we have the capacity to make them.

Automation/AI/Robotics will diminish the “human error” significantly, but it will not deplete it entirely. And as far as it taking away jobs, it won’t take jobs away, just create a different type of role. If Katherine hadn’t been there, who knows when we would have gotten into orbit, much less the rest of the aeronautic strides we have made and are still making. Machines didn’t do that. Humans did.

Think of it this way – when you’re writing an email and you misspell something and it automatically corrects to what you meant to say, does that take away from the message of your email? Absolutely not! It allows you to spend less time fixing minuscule errors and allowing you to press forward to the meat of your message more quickly. I use the auto-correct example because there are times that it’s not perfect, which has caused several hilarious viral “fails” on the internet. It’s not the be-all end-all, there still needs to be a human fixing the false “correction.” However, out of 100 emails/texts you send with the feature turned on, 95 of those will have made the right change. Can you imagine how long it would take if we had to manually scan for typos with every single piece of writing we send out?

AI/Automation/Robotics is the auto-correct of the technological world.

We are an amazing species – and no machine is ever going to take that away. They say “when one door closes, another one opens” and this is absolutely no different.

I’ll leave you with this thought if you’re not convinced. When you call into a call center for an airline, they have AI helping you to do mundane tasks (basically everything you can do on the internet yourself.) But what happens when you need to talk about a specific billing issue, or something beyond booking a flight? We get transferred to a person. This is exactly what is going to happen as we go further down this path. We will become even more sophisticated, more specialized, and allow even more room for growth.

We needn’t fear the new technological front, we just need to be aware of it and its effects on our daily lives. If you’re scared of losing your job, find something new and become an expert now! The only thing stopping us is ourselves, and with the wealth of information available at our fingertips nowadays, it’s only an issue if you allow it to be.

What do you think? Let’s chat!

(Originally posted on LinkedIn March 6, 2017)

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