Richard Branson: Why entrepreneurs should think twice about artificial intelligence

Richard Branson discusses the role of artificial intelligence in modern business and reflects on how Virgin came up against some tough 'AI' competition as far back as the 1980s...

"As someone who’s been described as the ultimate don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts person, I’m not the quintessential authority on human intelligence, let alone artificial intelligence. I am, however, concerned about the number of established businesses and fledgling entrepreneurs who are increasingly eager to bet the farm on what the data tells them. In other words, algorithms and data should not interfere with good, old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurship, no matter how distant that day may be," writes the Virgin Group founder in a recent blog post.

"Here’s an example of what I mean: There are certain industries where big data is king. We’re starting to see headlines like "BlackRock Is Making Big Data Bigger" in Institutional Investor magazine, and "Last Days of the Stock Picker as Money Managers Embrace AI" in the Financial Post (although I don’t fully understand why anyone would willingly “embrace” something that might replace their position with a machine-run algorithm!). Reports like these demonstrate the reach that AI is having in business, but we must not forget that unlike machines that "think", only humans have the ability to look at an idea or market opportunity and say "to hell with the data. Maybe this doesn’t work in theory, but my gut tells me it will work in practice"."

While there are undoubtedly many upsides to implementing the use of artificial intelligence within your business, Richard points out that some of the more inspired qualities shared by leading entrepreneurs cannot be distilled into an algorithm.

"I wonder what data-driven AI would have said with regard to the chances of two guys named Steve - Jobs and Wozniak - successfully competing with the likes of IBM in the 1970s. And what algorithm might have predicted that within just 13 years of Tesla’s founding, Elon Musk’s upstart could surpass the Ford Motor Company in market capitalization - and do it with less than 2% of Ford’s unit sales? After all, while Musk was not a "car guy," his instincts told him that despite previous stumbles in the industry, electric cars would eventually be the way of the future. Also, as high-tech as his solar, space and automotive ventures are, it’s intriguing that in 2014 Musk warned an audience at MIT that the tech sector should be “very careful” about AI: "With artificial intelligence," Musk said, "we are summoning the demon".

Richard Branson: Why I start businesses

"In 1984, when we started Virgin Atlantic Airways, the demon we confronted was another kind of AI - Airline Intelligence - in the shape of deeply entrenched giants like British Airways, Pan Am and TWA. Traditional airline metrics were essentially screaming, "This is crazy! It cannot work! Don’t do it!” This is precisely why we didn’t let data get in the way.

"While the so-called "industry experts" insisted that a venture like ours would be utterly unsustainable and doom us to an early demise, we were focused on thinking differently about business. If we were starting Virgin Atlantic today, I wonder how AI would quantify the benefits of an intangible like a flight attendant’s smile. What would the data say about winning customers over with courtesy and respect?"

One thing that all businesses should be particularly careful of is putting the growth of their computer systems ahead of the growth of their people. After all, in this increasingly digitised and connected world the human touch is becoming more important than ever before in business.

"I’m especially concerned that people who are developing AI are doing so at the expense of developing human talent, and downgrading all the instincts and experiential learning that has propelled us from cave dwellings to today’s modern societies.

"Whenever possible, companies must empower their people to make on-the-spot decisions and think on their feet. If the rulebooks, systems and data-based procedures consistently get in the way, they should be encouraged to question them rather than to blindly accept the status quo. This is a lot easier for a person to do, but it’s almost impossible for a machine - at least for now."


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