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What not to worry about

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In our complex, fast-changing world, there’s never been any shortage of danger or opportunity. To make things even more challenging, those two opposites are frequently fueled by hype, usually for journalistic effect. Such hype can make you cower in fear or foolishly go where angels dare to tread.

You need to keep your radar sharply tuned and pay close attention. Not only to what’s happening on the surface, which can be deceiving, but to what’s going on underneath—the root causes. Knowledge in the form of validated, actionable information should be at the very core of what you do as a KM leader/practitioner.

With that backdrop in mind, let’s take a look at just a few of the more hype-laden “memes du jour” spreading throughout the digiverse and how too approach them in a realistic and practical way.

Meme #1: The so-called “singularity”

The hype: Borrowed from the campy 1984 sci-fi flick The Terminator, “singularity” is the term given to that rapidly approaching point at which machine processing and memory capacity exceed that of the human brain. The fear among many is that if we don’t act now, intelligent, autonomous machines will eventually take control over everything we do. Or according to a more benign scenario, machines will eventually do everything while we humans slowly turn into permanently unemployed vegetables.

The reality: The singularity will be a snoozer, just like the dreaded Y2K event. Those are technology milestones. Nothing more, nothing less. As for fears about the onset of a Skynet-like apocalypse in which a single entity, human or artificial, controls everything, remember this simple law: The more complex a system becomes, the more energy it consumes. Eventually it collapses under its own weight. There will always be limits, and you can always count on the “S” curve. So stop worrying.

The opportunity: Ride the technology wave. And keep riding it, for as long as it lasts. History is replete with technology-driven “singularities” that moved us kicking and screaming from hunter-gatherers to farmers to assembly line workers to information workers to knowledge workers.

There’s still plenty of thinking, innovating and discovery that needs to be done. Use machines as your tools, not as your master. Which brings us to …

Meme #2: Human/machine integration

The hype: Soon you’ll be able to control computers directly with your thoughts and vice versa. Processors and other components will be inserted directly into the human body, including the brain. You’ll even be able to access cloud-based supercomputers as extensions of your own mind.

The reality: Think about the thoughts swimming around in your head at this very moment. And while you’re at it, don’t think of the color blue. You get the idea.

The opportunity: Forget the mind control stuff. However, using eye movements, hand gestures, even neuro-electrical impulses as inputs are very much in our future. The human physiology is magnificently equipped with multiple communication modalities. Forty-three muscles produce our facial expressions. Twenty-eight mouth, tongue and throat combinations deliver the spoken word, accompanied by literally hundreds of different hand gestures.

Those have served us well for thousands of years. We’ve transferred knowledge through stories, music, dance and other forms of expression long before IT ever came along. Now with virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), our communication modalities will become even more experiential and emotionally engaging. Not to mention bringing new hope and dramatic improvements in the quality of life for people with a whole range of challenges and disabilities. Which brings us to …

Meme #3: Super-extended longevity and ultimately, immortality

The hype: From stem cells to 3-D printing of living tissues and organs, the day is coming when you can order replacement parts for your body just like you do for your car.

The reality: Yes, we’re actually 3-D printing both living and synthetic tissue in the laboratory. But there’s that old complexity limit again. You simply cannot systems engineer even the smallest protozoan from scratch, let alone the entire human physiology. The sooner we realize that there will always be a difference between natural systems and artificial systems, the better. But augmenting one with the other in the right way is both feasible and desirable.

The opportunity: Just as in meme #2, the best and most likely path will be a combination of natural approaches to life extension, starting with DNA and epigenetics, augmented with but not entirely replaced by the artificial. Advancements in the fields of integrative medicine, nutrition and related disciplines requires building and maintaining (i.e., curating) bodies of knowledge on a massive scale. You can’t find a clearer need for the application of the knowledge sciences and KM.

Looking at the big picture

It’s OK to dream. That’s how many discoveries and breakthroughs began. Einstein pondered what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. From that, the theory of relativity and much of today’s modern physics unfolded.

But Einstein understood the difference between dreaming and reality. He knew that we would never be able to actually ride on a beam of light. Nor would we ever want to, given the relativistic effects that would occur even if we could do such a thing.

Here’s what you can do as a KM’er to help co-create a better and more realistic future.

1. Inoculate yourself against emotionally pathogenic memes. We inoculate our bodies against microorganisms. We inoculate our computers against cyber-attack. We need to inoculate our minds in the same way. Never forget that KM is roughly 90 percent people and 10 percent technology. Remember who is in control.

2. Keep “humans in the loop,” especially when making critical decisions. The temptation to cede decisions to machines (for example, high-frequency trading in the financial markets) can be strong.

Be selective. Let machines control your refrigerator, air conditioning and even your automobile. But don’t let them control your thinking. Otherwise, you might as well go ahead and implant that computer chip into your skull and dive into the Matrix.

3. Never forget that complexity has limits. People toss around the terms cloud, grid, etc., without thinking

about what’s holding it all together—what’s preventing a catastrophic failure of the whole mess. That’s where using technology as a tool comes into play. Multiple aspects of KM—node/link vulnerability analysis, trend forecasting, scenario planning—play a huge role in keeping everything up and running.

Pay close attention to what’s going on at a deep structure level. Those are the underlying forces driving what you see happening on the surface. It’s also the level at which even a small change can make a significant impact.

Culture is a good example. Culture drives behavior—both individual and societal. Given the social amplification effects of technology, a small spark can ignite either overwhelming demand or a product-killing boycott.

There are many more threats and opportunities, including those nasty and unpredictable “black swans.” Which is why you need to have agility and resilience “baked in” to everything you do. Continually refine your capacity to both recognize and commercialize innovative breakthroughs that can pop up anywhere in your organization, not just your R&D department.

All of this may seem like a tall order. But with the right array of tools and brainpower, you’ll definitely be up to the task.

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