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A drop in the Ocean

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

1950. Alan Turing seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” is published. The paper starts with this sentence:

I propose to consider the question, "Can machines think?"

Turing’s paper is universally considered as birth of a rich research field we call today Artificial Intelligence. 70 years later AI is creating a powerful transformation wave in the way we work, learn or create and is evolving at a breakneck speed.

The interesting bit of any innovation (technological or not) is that the more we dive into trying to solve a problem the more unanswered questions we find. AI is again a good example here: we are getting good at the basics but the number of new and unanswered questions about this emerging field is still growing.

The Wave

Surfers reading this will understand better but anyone who has dived in the ocean understand the physical forces at play when you are hit by a wave. I like to think of questions as a tool to generate waves, not just metaphorical waves but real, physical waves that generate real impact in the physical world.

Just think about the thousands and thousands AI researchers that wake up every day to investigate unanswered aspects of AI. Think about the amount of energy they use trying to make progress on their research and help us answering critical questions. Intellectual energy but also physical energy to use powerful computing platforms or economic energy of their organization investing in these research projects. Or think about the energy we are collectively putting in creating courses to teach and all the energy millions of people are now putting into learning about these new technologies or the impact on the job market. Or think about all the people working at companies developing and marketing AI based solutions. Sum all this up and you get a gigantic wave that is moving an entire civilization into an era where we as humans we’ll have to learn to live in symbiosis with algorithms and robots.

If you followed me so far you can appreciate the tremendous wave that that drop in the water Turing dropped by asking “can machine think?” has generated.

I made the Turing example since it is something I’m more familiar with but I’m sure you can come up with several examples of key questions that have triggered powerful waves of transformation: I invite you to add your examples in the comments and contribute validate or debate the main idea expressed in this post.

Questions-generating machines

The amazing thing is that we all are “questions generating machines” and we constantly ask ourselves and others around us questions from the time we were born:

  • why?

  • what do you mean by that?

  • are we alone in the universe?

  • which bus to Trafalgar’s square?

  • do you love me?

  • should we use gender as a discriminating feature to grant personal credit to our bank users?

  • is remote work productive?

  • is global warming reversible?

  • etc …

We constantly ask questions. We are wired this way.

By asking ourselves and others questions, we are generating waves. Our questions trigger a reaction that generate inquisitive energy in others and move them to think and to act in new directions.

Look for the question, not the answer

So far we have formulated the hypothesis of human beings as questions-generating machines. Sometimes our questions create small waves, sometimes big waves. The bigger the wave the bigger the impact our question was able to generate.

Once place we can search for validation of this hypothesis is a work environment. When a group of people collaborate in a project that is supposed to generate value, those teams who are able to formulate the best questions are those who can produce the most impactful results.

This applies also to startups (small group of people collaborating at a project that generate value) as clearly articulated by Eric Ries in his book “Lean Startup”: when a team is trying to create a new solution the most important activity is being able to formulate the key questions that will drive the investigation into a new unchartered territory.

As Ash Maurya, author of best-seller book “Running Lean” states

life is too short to build something nobody wants.

so the most impactful activity as a startup is to ask the question

  • what is the customer problem worth solving ?

Spending energy discovering the answer to this quesion generates a wave of activities that in some cases results in creating extremely valuable companies and it should be the focus of all entrapreneurs. Unfortunately it often happens that entrapreneurs fall in love with the solution (answer) instead of the question and they spend a tremendous amount of energy in building great MVPs to solve problems that only exist in the head of the entrapreneur.

Questions are the spark that moves us into an investigation path to generate value that can lead to a transformation wave.

question → investigation → value → transformation wave

Question: how to pose the right question?

I recently participated of a wonderful learning experience participating to Alex Breta’s Master of Learning (MOL) community. The invitation to us as self-directed learning architects was to write down a question that would drive our research path.

I enjoyed the dynamic suggested by Alex: we had to write it down on a post-it on a Miro board and let it stay there for some time … “decanting”. From time to time we would go back and make some small changes to the question until we were feeling pretty solid on the guiding question to start the investigation path looking for answers in that direction. After few weeks we had the opportunity to share our finding with the group (Portal).

Conducting this activity one will soon realize that there is no such a thing as “the right” question (as there isn’t a “right answer” either) but a chain of increasignly better questions. Even when you feel confident enough to sign up to share your findings with the group is not because you have the answers, perhaps you don’t even have the question but this Learning Architecture gets you moving, gets you started in the investigation path and that is a necessary step - I’d say, it creates the conditions - for you to get to the value generating stage.

You can almost start with any question and increasingly get closer to a question you find worth enough pursuing by asking yourself (and others if you have the fortune to belong to a community of learners) the weight of your question.

This brings me to my favorite topic these days, high-performance learning communities, but I will have to leave this to another post ….

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