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From Delphic sayings to algorithms

I may be coming a bit late to the party but I caught up with the thinking of Yuval Noah Harari during an interview he gave on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week (October 1st). I say that I am coming a bit late to his party given that his third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is dressing many bookshop windows, he has lectured at the Royal Institution (2016), and his thinking can be heard on Youtube and TED. I have to admit that I have not yet read his books and although I have heard him talk before it was not until Monday that what he had to say connected with me. What connected was at the level of his language, how his discussion felt relevant to my present reality, and how it prompted thought about future probabilities.

One of the themes he was talking about brought the meaning of the Delphic saying ‘Know thyself’ right up to date. Indeed, he projected into the future about how ‘Know thyself’ will take on even more importance. A future where a combination of artificial intelligence and biotechnology might combine into tools that will ‘hollow out’ human beings, removing their free will. A future were our individual minds can be hacked by algorithms intended to serve our needs yet developing the capability to detect our needs. Slow down with the doom-laden scenario I hear you cry! In fact, his discussion was not doom laden. For me using the terms ‘hollowed out’ and ‘hacked’ at the level of the individual rather than in relation to the disruptions of organisations was interesting. I prompted me to think of what I could do as an individual, how the smaller cog might influence the bigger wheel.

Getting back to that saying. Socrates is attributed with the update ‘To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom’ elaborating on the simplicity of the original Delphic aphorism. Fast-forward a couple of thousand years (and some) and we get to the late 20th century where the importance of emotional intelligence to the success of individuals and industry starts to gain serious traction. The foundation stone of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, the skill that we must first understand ourselves, before we can work at our best with other people in family groupings, workplace teams and wider social networks.

Harari points out that that the ability to know yourself better than anyone else is the key to ensuring that you cannot be controlled by them (that is, without choosing to be). Until recently, for most of us humans the only competition in knowing us better than we know ourselves has been other humans. Given that we are all such a complex mix of values, conscience, imagination and free will we cannot realistically know another person better than they know themselves.

That game has changed with the massive pace of development in AI and its biotechnology-enriched understanding of the human condition. Now through data capture and machine learning there is already the reality that algorithms can come to know us quite well. How many times, right now, do we abdicate decision responsibilities to algorithms that lie behind the software we use to shop, find out information, find our way from place to place, to find partners etc etc. As we become more at ease with algorithms making decisions on our behalf Harari views there is the probability that a computer, an inorganic entity, may come to know an organic human better than it knows itself. The dominant life form could become inorganic rather than organic. From there comes the projection of the evolution paradigm changing from one of natural selection to intelligent design.

What was appealing about Harari’s language is that he does not present his views as a prediction and not countenance any other. He aims to describe ‘different possibilities which we could then choose to do something about’. He wants to ensure that our trajectory into the future is thoughtful and conscious of possibilities. I like that!

Relevant to my present reality is that helping people with their self-awareness, as well as being vigilant in relation to my own, is central to the development and leadership coaching I do with my clients. I guess it is not a surprise that I agree with Harari that the most important employment skill in future will the ability to reinvent ourselves to fit the changing needs of our world. The traits he describes as being key to this are ever increasing emotional intelligence (in which self-awareness is crucial) and ‘mental balance’ in the face of constant change.

This view of the future suggests two things to me as a coach. Firstly, coaching will continue to offer valuable development opportunities to people in both their social and workplace environments. Secondly, coaches must not be complacent: those same algorithms that may come to know is better than we know ourselves also have the capability of learning how to coach. We need to harness the benefits of that and concentrate efforts on the elements of coaching that require that uniquely human, organic interaction.

Right, that’s me done. I’m off to Amazon to buy what is recommended to me. Perhaps an algorithm will spot this post content and the recommendation will be Harari’s book. Not too bad an outcome then! Bye.

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