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Chess Robot: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

The recent advances in Artificial Intelligence are provoking a debate about AI safety. There are some noticeable voices talking about the risk of the construction of intelligent robots. In my humble opinion as an expert in robotics from several decades ago, I consider that this problem is more philosophical than technical. The nature of knowledge and intelligence has been a philosophical problem from the beginning of philosophy, and there is not a philosopher that has proposed a satisfactory solution to it.

In the twentieth century, with the advances in automation, AI is born as a technical problem. The aim of AI is initially to endue automation systems with the ability to acquire some kind of knowledge about the controlled system or the environment in order to provide better responses than linear controllers. The initial successful AI systems are based on expert systems. Expert systems incorporate the knowledge of human experts and have some preprogrammed decision rules in order to improve the output of the controller.

The difference between a linear controller (a classical PID) and an expert system is that the former one is ruled by a mathematical algorithm which parameters can be precisely determined from the physical model of the system, and the latter one is ruled by a decision algorithm that managed the information deposited by experts into a database. However this kind of AI is fully predictable, the same inputs always provide the same outputs for the some stored knowledge into the database and that kind of expert systems cannot learn by themselves. The problem of expert systems is that they cannot cope with unexpected situations. They only can cope with situations expected by experts providing the knowledge.

When I was working in computer vision related activities as researcher, I realized that it was very important to have a philosophical vision of the intelligence in order to build more sophisticated systems, I began to read works by many philosophers:  Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Hume, and so on. The problem of knowledge acquisition and intelligence is constant in the history of philosophy. Kant, considered the father of the modern philosophy, is a very interesting reading (and a hard one too) in this field. His separation of the concepts of phenomenon (object of sensible knowledge) and noumenon (object of pure reason) is very descriptive to be used in the engineering of intelligent systems. Kant is the first one philosopher that makes a discussion about the ability of the human brain to deduct two contrary logical solutions to several philosophical problems. He called them antinomies. In other words, there are some philosophical problems that cannot be solved by reasoning.

This is very important when we are talking about thinking machines. Natural intelligence is limited and most people talking about artificial intelligence are not conscious about it.

Current intelligent machines are much more complex than an expert system. They can acquire knowledge and learn. There are different techniques to get this with a computer, the most known technique can be the artificial neural networks. This kind of systems are bioinspired, they have a lot of little processing centers that can interconnect with their neighbors. Knowledge is stored in the weights of the connections between processing centers. The difference between ANNs and experts systems is clear. The output of the system depends not only on which is the knowledge to be acquired but on the how the knowledge is learnt.

There are recent examples about this fact, when some AI bots trying to learn from the interaction in social networks can finally transmitting unacceptable messages if a group of people interacting with the bot have provoked a learning driven to it. This is not very surprising because the same behavior can be easily provoked in a human child.

Why do I think that AI safety is more a philosophical problem than a technical one? Because we are trying to build a copy a natural system with a working model practically unknown and even that it is imperfect and limited.

The philosophical question here would be: Are we doing a copy of the human intelligence or are we doing a copy of the human stupidity? Actually, we do not know it, because we do not understand well what human intelligence is and how it is implemented, and what does a person more intelligent or more stupid.

However, the question about it we can make a safe humanlike AI system is more technical than philosophical, because safety measures can be included in the implementation of any computer system. This should be obvious for everyone. When we are not able to assure that our dog will attack people during our morning walk, we usually use a dog leash. The fact that a dog can move autonomously does not imply that we cannot limit its movements. In the case of robots, the leash can be incorporated internally by engineering design.

AI systems can be designed in many ways, with more or less degree of sophistication and it can include safety measures. AI will be useful in the industry if they are engineered to provide desired tasks and we avoid the raw copy of the human stupidity.


Robot Dream Exhibition Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Public Domain

I cannot hide a little smile, when I can read at the press that “robots are coming to remove our job”. What a great discovery! Some “brilliant mind” has found that “evil” engineers are developing machines to avoid the hard work of people. Someone must think that the searching for a more comfortable life is not the sign of any civilization. Someone must think that the first civilizations do not invent livestock breeding in order to avoid the more dangerous, more laborious, less predictable, less effective and less efficient job of hunter. There is not any written record of some kind of group of hunters on strike. This is not a probable fact because unions were an invention in the recent centuries. However, there are archeological evidences that many tribes continued acting as hunter gatherers for a longer time until their disappearance. Not accepting the social technological changes is not only a matter of worse understanding of social evolution. It is a matter of driving the society to a subsequent disappearance in front of those ones that incorporate the technological advances.

I am not probably the most intelligent man in the world and I cannot see where the “evilness” of engineers can be found. Is the transformation of jobs into less dangerous activities for people evilness?  Is the transformation of jobs into less repetitive and more creativity activities evilness? Is a more effective and more efficient exploitation of natural resources evilness?

Christian-Jewish civilization is based on the premise that hard work is the result of the original sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis). For that civilization, hard work is a divine punishment. Then, it cannot be a social value. Perhaps, the “brilliant mind” behind the “evilness” of engineering is looking with religious eyes, because he sees it as a way to avoid a divine punishment. Suffering for a great cause can be considered an extremely great act of mercy; however, making people to suffer for something that can be easily avoided is only an act of masochism.

I do not want to be misunderstood. Effort and hard work related to achieve our own or even social aims must not be avoided. It should be promoted. What must be removed is the work that limits our capability to improve if there is a technological way to do it. Ancient Romans dedicated their lives to the defense and expansion of their empire while the repetitive work of cultivating their fields was done by slaves. War is a job harder than agriculture; however, the result of the war could not be put in the hands of slaves. There will be always many activities that will have to be done by ourselves, although those activities can be even the hardest ones.

I am conscious that people are not worried about the loss of jobs but about the loss of personal incomes, but this problem is not linked to engineering but linked to politics. It is a common social error in our days to translate the incompetence of political world to accept and to drive changes to the engineering world that is prepared to them from its beginnings. Engineering always provides solutions to problems, while politics creates them when politicians are not able to agree.

I can ask to myself if ancient Romans would have substituted their slaves for robots. That would be a great social problem. Before slavery all enemies were assassinated, in fact slavery was a social advance because it let to avoid the extermination of many people. The problem of robotics deployment can be not related to people jobs but to the change of the political order and the sharing of political power among rival political factions. Technology never is evil but people controlling it can be.

Robots are not the problem, are the solution. Robots are enemies of neither capital nor people. I would like that politicians against robots defending the “jobs of people” or a “stable economy” counted the number and quality of jobs before the use of computers and after it. Computers have provided more jobs, better labor conditions and higher benefits for companies. The arguments about the evilness of technological advances from any political side are neither reasonable nor defendable.

Brain Training. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Brain Training. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Sun Tzu thought that a war must be won before the fight: “In war, the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas, he who is destined to defeat, first fights and afterwards looks for victory”.

The planning of activities, as many other common activities in the business world, proceeds from the military activity. Although this kind of thoughts is useful for the business world, it is very important to establish a difference between business competition and war. There are several things to be considered:

  • The aim of a strategy for war usually is the total defeat of the enemy; however, the aim of a business strategy is to improve the positioning of the company.
  • In a classic warfare scenario there are two factions, while in a competitive market the number of competitors can be huge. Business strategy usually is more complex than warfare strategy in a conventional scenario because of the number of involved organizations and the links among them. On the other hand, it is true that modern geopolitics is making more complex day by day too.

Competition is a thing that is not very easily simplified. We cannot eliminate easily a competitor when he is better than us although that fact would make our life easier.

Classic business strategy is many times inspired by military one. This must be done being very cautious, although many principles of military strategy could be useful for business activity.

Sun Tzu said for instance that a way in which a ruler can bring misfortune to his army is “by attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army”.

This sentence is very interesting to start a discussion: Is business activity similar to govern an army, or similar to govern a kingdom? Many businessmen would say that it is different to both activities, and they, probably, are right. Sun Tzu’s previous sentence can be applied to business. A business cannot be administered like a nation because while they are in a competition while public administration is a pure monopoly, however this fact does not imply that a business must be governed like an army because workers with labor contracts have not the same compromise with the organization than a soldier who has made a pledge of allegiance.

One of the main problems in many businesses is to get people be involved in the strategic decisions of the company. A citizen is like a shareholder of a country that has the right to vote about how the nation must be governed; however, a worker has not that legal capability. The directorate must create a working environment that let the worker to feel he is contributing to make something great providing value for him and for other ones.

Atlantis Spacecraft. Photo credit: NASA

Atlantis Spacecraft. Photo credit: NASA

In every modern organization the deployment of any strategy is driven by policies. Policies establish a general guidance of action to develop any important activity in an organization. They start from the organizational values and the desired objectives that the action must reach. They establish a framework to define the proper working procedures. While procedures provide a defined path of action, policies put limits to the final path only.

Policies in a business organization are not based in ideologies as social policies. They are usually based in paradigms. Paradigm is a theory or a set of theories that have a basement or model that is accepted and not questioned and it provides a framework to develop activities following reason. A change of the paradigm is produced when science demolishes the model and then it is substituted by a different one. In the same way as ideologies are a matter of faith, paradigms have need of faith in the authority of someone that proposed the model; however, it is easier to change paradigms than ideologies. Ideologies are usually based in a vision of a better future organization and paradigms are based in a perception of how the current organization actually works. Our perception of the present can be changed through additional data while our desires about the future cannot be changed so easily.

As business organizations has mostly economic objectives instead of social ones, business organizations tend to be driven as a technocracy where paradigms are supported by the authority of the senior directorate. On the other hand, social policies totally based on paradigms instead of ideologies would drive to a perfect social technocracy.

Innovation policies are a special kind of business policies because the innovation activity is searching for a better future for the organization. The vision of a different future can drive the innovation activity instead of the perception of the way followed by the organization that can be optimized by the development of new products and processes.

In a healthy organization these two different concepts are present, and it is very important to preserve a line marking the border between envisioning the future and paradigm although sometimes this line can be very thin.

The difference implies that we can try to change the market with technological innovations or we can try to develop technological innovation to satisfy market needs. The former option would be based on our vision of the future market and the latter one would be based on our perception of what market really needs although sometimes it does not know it.

For instance, about thinking that every family should have a PC computer at home: Was it a vision or a change of paradigm?

In any case, related to innovation policies this is not important. Innovation policies are related to how innovation activity is organized inside the business instead of the innovation itself. An example of innovation policy would be to define what kind of ideas about new products can be chosen and this is usually done following a paradigm. Senior directorate usually has a theory about what kind of ideas finally works, what kind of ideas produces a higher benefit and what is ratio of risk that can be accepted for the activity, that let them to decide a certain portfolio of products. Innovation consultants have several models of it, and the most common is usually known as the current paradigm about innovation.

In large organizations, innovation policies usually are paradigm-based while innovation itself can be vision-based.

The vision of Saint Ignacio de Loyola at Seville Cathedral

The vision of Saint Ignacio de Loyola at Seville Cathedral

One of the most ancient philosophies, Chinese one, has got a very interesting concept: yin and yang. It represents how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

An example in history was the development of Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe. Bertrand Russell thought that Reformation was mainly a political revolt against the power of Pope in Italy. The Counter-Reformation was a revolt against the intellectual and moral freedom of Renaissance in Italy.

Reformation was German, Counter-Reformation was Spanish. They were the germen of wars of religion between Spain (that was the main military power in Europe in that time) and its enemies. The initial protestant success was limited due to the creation of the Jesuit order by Saint Ignacio de Loyola. Loyola had been a soldier and every Jesuit was to consider himself as a soldier against heresy. The Jesuits acquired prestige especially in the Far East. They work on education, and where theology was not involved, the quality of the education they provided was the best obtainable.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation imposed different moral conceptions in Europe. Protestants believed in predestination and salvation was a matter of faith, in front of Catholics that believed in free-will and salvation was a matter of both faith and works.

The effect on European culture was important due to their consequences instead of their philosophies. The diversity of creeds and the fatigue from ideological warfare produced in the next centuries more interest on reason and learning, especially mathematics and science.

Moral convictions always had been a matter of faith and they can change over time as the epoch of Reformation and Counter-Reformation shows.

Moral convictions have got a great importance for the way that innovation is driven in our societies, especially because they are linked to many prejudices. For instance, before Reformation activities related to lend money in exchange of some interest were considered something ignoble and not Christian; however, nowadays, the world is driven, among many other things, by the rate of interest defined by central banks.

With the evolution of societies over time, many moral prejudices have been overcome and it has been possible due to the increasing interest in science and the use of reason to solve discrepancies and social problems.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation produced two sides of the same coin as Yin and Yang. This coin with head and tails is present today in the Occidental culture although we are not aware of it.

Although occidental culture is based on the Christianism, moral convictions linked to predestination and free-will are slightly different and they have an effect on how people look at common activities like the innovative and productive ones.

The classic idea that Southern European people (in Catholic countries) are more imaginative and passionate can be real and they may be related to these moral convictions. Free-will implies a vision of multiple ways to find a solution and an optimal one in front of predestination that paints a world of only one color (one way). On the other hand, protestant people are freer of guilty feeling. They have less fear to be wrong because the error would be produced by destiny.

Both competences (imagination and fearless to be wrong) are required in the innovation process. That is reason why, like yin and yang, Northern and Southern European people rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.