Not so elementary, my dear Watson!


“Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.”

                                                                                                        Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1862

 Awhile back, I had been intrigued to read about IBM’s artificial intelligence (AE) named Watson competing in the Quiz show Jeopardy and beating two of Jeopardy’s record holding champions at their own game! It made me realise the extent to which AE development has been able to close in on to the human mind in terms of sifting through and analysing information to reach a correct decision. IBM’s Watson has clearly graduated from the realm of data crunching to become a possessor of knowledge.

Since the dawn of civilisation, Man has sought knowledge. Knowledge to alleviate hardships, to control the environment, to predict outcomes. Knowledge became a source of power and this manifested itself throughout history. Be it through intrigue, technology or the Brahmin rituals. Through millennia and centuries, such a belief only got reinforced.

As individuals, we develop our knowledge by linking it to other knowledge bases. But our belief in our own knowledge is not for knowledge sake but the power we derive from it. Be it in our personal or professional lives. Our inner fears of loss of power or relevance make us resist any changes in our knowledge structure. Eve though deep down we do realise that like all else, there can be no permanence; change in one aspect can shift the entire knowledge structure and its relevance.

But knowledge to be useful has to move away from being mere information. Especially as we face an exponential overload of information. Raw, disjointed data streaming in from all over. And as we grapple with this information avalanche, we have no time to reflect, analyse and produce usable knowledge.

It was only in the last century that we witnessed a formal acknowledgement of what has come to be known as “knowledge work”. And in 1959, Peter Drucker coined “Knowledge worker” as someone who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

So how do I see knowledge trending? As organisations have sailed into this century, business leaders have believed in the mantra of investing in technology and knowledge workers. But they also continue to hold the belief that for goals to be achieved there needs to be a control over the work activity and process flow. But this clashes with the loose and unstructured environment that the knowledge worker seeks.

And then there is the deeper issue of a radically changing workplace. As chip based machines take over structured and repetitive activities, the less skilled workers increasingly take on “knowledge worker-like” qualities. Be it book-keepers, clerks or factory floor workers. In essence, more and more workers are learning to manipulate and use knowledge in a decentralised and flat manner.

The twenty first century workplace demands knowledge through unhindered access to information not only within the organisation but by connecting to diverse, outside sources. But does this not run contrary to our age old belief that to retain power, we need to keep the individual in a silo, fed with only ‘need to know” information and expertise? Clearly a significant perspective shift is warranted in our business leaders to be able to accept a radically different information flow and power structure.

And this I would term as our knowledge quandary.

As workers, we need and demand more and more instant access to information from all over. As individuals, we have less and less time to mull over and process the veritable deluge of information coming at us. As leaders and managers, we like to retain power by restricting information and knowledge flows on a “need to know” basis. As we hold onto these power bases using outdated knowledge. And in the midst of all this, now queering the pitch is Watson and artificial intelligence coming centre stage. Truly a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes and he would have doubtlessly remarked, “Not so elementary, my dear Watson!”

And what do I envision going forward? Do I see the “power of knowledge’ pendulum swinging wildly between the individual and the corporation? As the former uses unfettered knowledge for empowerment? And as the latter fights to retain control through use of Watson to aggrandise and analyse information, convert to knowledge and take decisions? And what if Watson were to evolve and “learn” to the point that he cracks the last human stronghold of intuition and creativity?

In Learning……………..                                                                                  Shakti Ghosal

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