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A toast to mavericks, whomever you are

by Tom Austin  |  October 14, 2016  |  Comments Off on A toast to mavericks, whomever you are

A toast to mavericks, down with specialization myopia and up with cultivating a breadth of abilities

Interesting piece A 1951 look at (and contemporary commentary on) what people can do better than machines. One of the core conclusions then? Humans are flexible. They contain “general purpose intelligence.” I was struck by a cited Heinlein quote 

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Particularly the last sentence. Not because of the contrast between general intelligence versus narrow intelligence (a common discussion in AI discourses) but in thinking about the social and economic implications. Our industrial history (and current practices) focus on specialization, decomposing work into the smallest units, strive to minimize variances and cost, cut training cycles and so on. 

We seek to make people like robots … and then we seek to build robots that can replace robot-like people (well, robot-like at work.)

Popular memes that emphasize a specific (narrow) technical education, for example, produce people who will be pushed out of their jobs when their technical skills become obsolete – just like a machine!  (I’ve always been a fan of broad educational curricula generating renaissance people (what we used to call renaissance men, and yes, I believe we need carpenters and welders too but I remember a wonderful poet who had a very long career as a carpenter and built a marvelous extension for me on my previous house.)

Of course, specialization is not just of the industrial type, described above, of narrow, boring, tedious jobs. It’s also about depth instead of breadth; in essence, the value of artisans, craftspeople, experts – the world’s best. They too will suffer from their narrowness as lesser people get equipped with skills via smart machines ingesting the world’s knowledge and helping them be able to see eye to eye with people who can do it themselves, John Henry style (man against machine or more rightly, man against person+machine.)

All this really argues for both specialization and adaptability (which includes the ability to take on risk and see new ways of doing things, including thinking.) We have to cycle between both ends of this spectrum, something machines (or narrow people) won’t do for a long, long time.

At Gartner, we have a focus on both. Every year, we have a special effort to produce Maverick research projects that provide a different perspective than our mainline, expertise driven research. This year, we have delivered another outstanding crop. 

Read about it here: Gartner’s Maverick* Insights Explore New Ways to Achieve Disruptive Innovation. [This research summary should be available to all, whether Gartner client or not. Access to the pieces behind the summary may be restricted.] 


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Tom Austin
VP & Gartner Fellow
20 years at Gartner
41 years IT industry

Tom Austin, VP, has been a Gartner Fellow since 1997. He drives Gartner's research content incubator (the Maverick Program) and is leading a new research community creating research on the emerging era of smart machines. Read Full Bio

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