Blog Post

FLASHBACK, 2017: Lessons from the Virtuous Cycle of Artificial Intelligence

The following is a reprint of an article one of the Polywise founders posted on LinkedIn in January, 2017, which begins to put the current moment in context.

In the mid-1990’s, a computer scientist named Steve Grand was working on character elements in a new game for his company, Millennium Interactive. Grand hoped that he could create a game where the users felt a deep emotional investment in the simulated characters in their charge during the game. But, rather than impose a series of behavior rules on these simulated characters, Grand took the inspired step of choosing to build these characters from their simulated DNA first, hoping that the simple biological imperatives built into their genomes would give rise to recognizable, and, hopefully, endearing behaviors.

It’s an extraordinary thought: that simple rules,implemented on a vast scale, could give rise to unexpected complexity that, in and of itself, would lead to a more sophisticated set of rules that still fall within the boundaries of the basic parameters, only in unexpected ways. Given enough permutations, those simple rules give rise to something that resembles creativity to the naked eye, but a creativity that he, as the original programmer, could never have arrived at on his own in his lifetime.

Dr. Grand proceeded to write a book about his experiences, called “Creation”, which eventually found its way to Jeff Bezos’ desk.

At this point in the growth of Amazon, they were increasingly faced with the challenge of how their internal IT department could keep up with the wildly disparate compute resource demands of all of the software developers under their roof. The notion of unleashing creativity by devolving a problem down to its base components and then letting it run amok at scale struck a cord within the Amazon organization and, according to the book The Everything Store, it was a key insight that led to the creation of Amazon Web Services. Or, as the author Brad Stone states:

“If Amazon wanted to stimulate creativity among its developers, it shouldn’t try to guess what kind of services they might want; such guesses would be based on patterns of the past. Instead, it should be creating primitives — the building blocks of computing — and then getting out of the way.”

The irony, of course, is that now some of the most recent of these so-called primitives that Amazon has released to the public as a part of the AWS suite are, themselves, A.I. driven services. Tools like Rekognition, that can look at a picture and tell you what’s in it, to the point that it can determine if the person it sees is happy or angry.

Or like Polly, that can take a string of text and generate an audio clip that speak that text in any one of 47 different voices.

Or, like Lex, which lets you script a conversation interface that can either read or text or listen to your words and respond with the appropriate answer.

My mind immediately thinks of how these basic building blocks could completely transform the very nature of call centers and customer support. But that’s just off the top of my individual head. Just like a bone used as the first tool is the foundation that eventually leads to spaceships in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, who can predict where these primitive components can take us when allowed to run amok at scale.

The key, again, is the application of simple principles in all of their possible permutations at scale unleashing heretofore unheard of innovation. The lessons for other enterprises should not necessarily be how to use these tools to solve these known problems, but how to use these tools to activate the creativity of your entire organization so that you can mine all possible discoveries.

July 6, 2023

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