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By Adam Martel • March 12, 2018

You Can't Lead from Behind: A Cautionary Tale About Disruptive Technology

There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare had never heard of the personal computer, World Wide Web, smartphone, or artificial intelligence. However, the Bard’s prose, penned centuries ago (pardon the gender specific language), seems prescient today.

We see the relevance of this dialogue from one of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of disruptive technologies, especially AI. As is so often the case, it is not as if people can’t see the AI tide heading their way; they simply seem frozen in place and unable (or unwilling) to take it at the flood.

We are reminded of the heady days of the early Internet and personal computer, back in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, one of the premier firms of East Coast high technology, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), was riding high. Led by Ken Olsen, DEC had made its name with minicomputers, which were, in their time, a huge advance over the mainframes that dominated computing at the time.

By the late 1990s, this great company was out of business. What happened?

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

The narrative might be that Olsen was “blindsided” by the personal computer, announced with great fanfare by Apple in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and by IBM not long after.

However, that is a false narrative. Olsen and DEC saw the PC coming and failed to adapt to it. Olsen did not take the PC seriously and had DEC people stick to their knitting with the minicomputer.

Eventually, the company realized its mistake and tried to play catch-up with a perfectly adequate PC, but the market had already left them in the dust and was moving on with Apple and IBM.

We see this story repeated again and again in both profit-making businesses and nonprofits. Kodak and Polaroid saw the smartphone photo revolution coming and did nothing about it, Blackberry saw the same wave headed their way and stood pat. Who uses Blackberry today? Wasn’t Barack Obama the last holdout?

Then there were the over-the-air broadcasters back in the seventies. We have to give them credit: they looked at cable television and saw it as an existential threat. Their response: do everything to keep cable out of people’s homes. That was better than ignoring the tide lapping at their feet, but it was essentially defensive in nature. Of course, they failed, and now the cable people are making the same mistake with streaming technologies.

A lot of organizations looked at the rise of the World Wide Web and said, “nothing to see here, move on.” For example, both of us worked in fundraising organizations that took a long time to respond to the Web’s potential and almost missed the boat. “My organization is small, we don’t need a website,” they said. Now, we wonder what will happen to nonprofits as the AI tide roars in.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

The “sea on which we are now afloat” is artificial intelligence. Once again, we see the pattern of denial, and the hope that it will go away. People focus on possible futures like “the Singularity” and comfort themselves by saying it will never come. Meanwhile, AI is permeating our lives and our organizations to such an extent that few organizations would be able to do without it. As we have written in this blog space before, AI is becoming invisibly embedded in every process that underpins our highly technological civilization. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

The basic form of “AI denial” that has served its critics for the past 60 years or so is: “There are certain things that a person does that an AI can never do.” Of course, an AI could never beat a Jeopardy champion—until one did. And an AI could never beat a chess master—until one did. Okay, but an AI could never, ever beat a Go champion (much more complex than chess, you know)—until one did. And a hedge fund would never give full autonomy to an AI to do all its trades—but now, several of them do.

So, how does this apply to nonprofit fundraising? It’s pretty simple: “AI could never help a major gift fundraiser maintain relationships with three times as many prospects as he or she does today…” But Gravyty has customers who do just that!

Our First Draft product eliminates the process of scouring the CRM manually to choose which prospects ought to get a fundraiser’s attention—and does that 24/7. When the major gift officer opens their computer in the morning, First Draft has not only ranked the top prospects to be contacted that day but it has also written a customized email to each of them. Your first job as that fundraiser is, after a swig of coffee, to review and edit the emails, then hit “send.”

After that, you are free to do whatever will advance the cause of your organization. It might just be to see what First Draft offers you as the day progresses!

This is the tide in the affairs of both men and women in the fundraising industry that is headed our way. We can follow in the footsteps of previous leaders of various industries, ending up “bound in the shallows and miseries.” Or we can seize the tide at its flood, accept AI with its current benefits and future promise, and raise a lot more money for our organizations in a lot less time.

This piece was co-authored by Frank White.  Frank is a writer with a special interest in the impact of technology on society and identity. He has served as a mentor for the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE and is currently working on a new book, The (Neo) Singularity Is Here.