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In Digital Revolution, Humanization Matters: Walter Isaacson

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The combination of human beings and machines is the engine driving the digital revolution, said Walter Isaacson during a keynote speech at the Envestnet Advisor Summit on Wednesday.

Isaacson, author of “The Innovators: How a Group of Innovators, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” gave several examples of how the combination of human intuition and technology is superior to what either can do alone. 

“Technology being disruptive – it’s nothing new,” he said, describing Ada Lovelace’s adoption of loom punchcards to write algorithms in the 1840s.

“She is, to me, the founder of the belief that humans and technology in partnership will always surpass what machines can do alone and what humans can do.”

One hundred years later, Alan Turing’s imitation game or Turing test pitted humans and machines against each other to answer questions. If the answers are indistinguishable, Turing posited that it was evidence the machines were thinking, Isaacson said. Turing believed machines with that capability were only 20 or 30 years in his future.

“It’s been about 70 years and we still don’t have them. Over those 70 years, people like [advisors], who use machines creatively with your own intuition, have proven the Ada Lovelace model more correct, which is that the combination is always stronger,” Isaacson said.

“No one knows who invented the internet,” he said, “because it was done in this wonderful, collaborative process.”

He quoted Edwin Land, inventor of Polaroid, who said, “Those who stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities are going to be where the value is created.”

A prime example of someone who stood at that intersection from the modern era was Steve Jobs, of whom Isaacson wrote a biography. Jobs would sometimes “barrel through things that people say couldn’t be done.” For example, early versions of the Mac took 90 seconds to boot up, Isaacson said. Jobs wanted engineers to shave 20 seconds off that time and compelled them, “’Don’t be afraid. You can do it,’” Isaacson said. Engineers cut the time by 40 seconds.

“Computer interface has been made very problematic by techies who don’t understand human relationships,” Isaacson said, adding that interaction can’t happen entirely online. “What makes people human in their interactions is running into each other; the serendipity of face-to-face encounters.”

And despite lingering concerns about robo-advisors taking over advisors’ client relationships, Isaacson said artificial intelligence can’t replace instinct. “A computer is always going to be driven by algorithms,” he said.

Technology is only as good or bad as we make it, he added. It can depersonalize relationships, but things like social media can also increase connectivity between people.

There are two flaws, though, in digital networks, he said. One is that there’s no “embedded payment system. There’s bitcoin, but you can’t easily do a trusted financial transaction.”

The other flaw is that digital networks are anonymous. “It doesn’t necessarily isolate us, but it dehumanizes us.”

— Check out ‘Befuddled’ Clients, Compliance Headaches in Wake of DOL Fiduciary Rule  on ThinkAdvisor.