Commonsense gives us an edge over computers, so long as we use it

With the elections out of the way and as Prime Minister Tony Abbott clears the decks, Louise has decided to clear her head by taking a trip to Rwanda to re-enact Gorillas in the Mist.
By · 5 Oct 2013
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5 Oct 2013
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With the elections out of the way and as Prime Minister Tony Abbott clears the decks, Louise has decided to clear her head by taking a trip to Rwanda to re-enact Gorillas in the Mist.

Many think that we originated from these wonderful mammals and then, over time, learnt to speak and became smarter. I'm not so sure. After all, with world tourism exploding, Louise and her friends are spending a small fortune to trek deep into the African jungle to sit at the feet of primates which hold out their hands (or are they front feet) and are fed oranges. You might wonder which is the smarter species.

The smarts are one thing, but that's nothing without our health, and the poor old gorilla's leading form of death is cardiovascular failure, which Charlie's 92-year-old dad thankfully managed to overcome with a simple hospital procedure last week.

But though we might be similar in all sorts of ways, our distinguishing feature has always been our brain. This astonishing organ has propelled our evolutionary success but some recent events make me wonder if we are about to go backwards.

This week there was the announcement by one of the big media groups, IPG Mediabrands, which trades in Australia as Universal Media, reaffirming its commitment to conduct at least half of its media buying programmatically. "What does that mean?" asked Louise, who has a default brain alert for jargon. "Simple," Charlie said. "It means the hard drive replaces the spongy grey matter."

So will this computer-led intelligence take over the business world? Let's have a look at the history.

In the 1960s it was predicted that within a decade the computer would become the world chess champion and create leading theories of mathematics and psychology. Thankfully, none of that happened because a computer is not a brain. It does not create a state of mind. It does not have unconscious instincts, intuitions and tendencies. Put simply, it does not have commonsense.

The human brain is simply incomparable; it is 2 per cent of the mass of the body and yet it uses 20 per cent of the body's energy because it works so hard to solve problems that computers never will. In fact, it works 24 hours a day, and recent research shows that it may work its hardest when we are asleep. The phrase, "I'll sleep on it" is not so silly because sleep is widely thought to be the foundation of decision-making and an essential ingredient for memory and all that it entails.

There's no doubt that we in business need to use every sensible technological development that we can, but not at the expense of our unique human advantage.

In building Australia's biggest advertising business I always knew the smartest thing we had was our people. I remember looking around our office Christmas party a few years ago and seeing 600 people. More than 50 per cent were women, more than 25 per cent born outside of Australia, but 100 per cent of them clever and dedicated. It seemed to be a good combination.

Computers can make a lot of jobs easier but they'll never replace the brain.

The proposal that programmatic buying will become the new world doesn't really make any sense. In fact, a heavy reliance on computers can lead to real problems.

Those who invest in the stockmarket would know about HFT - high-frequency trades, also known as algorithmic trading, which uses computers for automated buying and selling. In 2009 HFT accounted for 60 to 73 per cent of US trades, but fell to 50 per cent by the end of last year because it is believed to have heavily contributed to the 2010 Flash Crash that was triggered by a single $4.1 billion trade. And then all hell broke loose.

I'm not saying that programmed media buying is going to crash the advertising business by automatically pouring unheard of amounts of money into the media owners' bank accounts. I'm just saying that we need to use our commonsense and our clients' oranges wisely and always consciously.
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