Top Menu

Only Those Who Understand Humanity Are Qualified To Sell It

It recently struck me that when people encourage students to go into STEM or business as careers, they may be underestimating the importance they place on daily human interactions and are taking them for granted.

Last month, there was an article in the Washington Post suggesting that people with liberal arts backgrounds will be hot commodities for technology companies. The value these people bring is their ability to help technology simulate human interactions.

Personal assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa are increasingly becoming an area of focus of development. The personality development teams work on backstories for the assistants and are responsible for evaluating whether flaws in speaking patterns in syntax make them more relate-able or too informal for their purpose.

The personalities for the artificial intelligences can’t be too perfect, but they also can’t be so flawed that you can do things like trick them into cursing. (Of course, people have been tricking kids toys into cursing for years, so nothing is perfect. NSFW)

There are thousands of subtle decisions that go into shaping the “personalities” of these assistants.

At a recent meeting of Microsoft Cortana’s six-person writing team — which includes a poet, a novelist, a playwright and a former TV writer — the group debated how to answer political questions.

To field increasingly common questions about whether Cortana is a fan of Hillary Clinton’s, for instance, or Donald Trump’s, the team dug into the backstory to find an answer that felt “authentic.” The response they developed reflects Cortana’s standing as a “citizen of the Internet,” aware of both good and bad information about the candidates, said Deborah Harrison, senior writer for Cortana, and a movie review blogger on the side. So Cortana says that all politicians are heroes and villains. She declines to say she favors a specific candidate.

The group, which meets every morning at Microsoft’s offices in Redmond, Wash., also brainstorms Cortana’s responses to new issues. Some members who are shaping Cortana’s personality for European and Canadian markets dial in.

Given this context, you can see why so much effort is invested into shaping the personality of the virtual assistants. Whether you use them or not is potentially lost revenue, even if it is just a matter of Apple/Amazon/Microsoft’s ability to sell data about your habits and interests to others.

The importance of whether you use it is definitely more than just a matter of selling aggregated data. Some of the uses mentioned in the article include life coach to lose weight, reminders to take medicine or collect medical data, calm anxieties, poll employees, arrange for meetings, etc.

The value of these applications/programs/whatever is as much about the user experience as it is about accurately identifying the closest Thai restaurant near your location.

But by and large, if you notice something about the user experience, if your experience isn’t seamless, the designers have probably done something wrong. This is also one of the core precepts of design and technical execution for live theater.

I imagine this contributes to the general sense that STEM and business careers are worthwhile versus more arts oriented careers. So much about STEM and business endeavors are quantifiable. You write X lines of code, generate X dollars in billing, run X experiments today.

You wrote jokes to give Cortana a sense of humor and suggested adjustments so people didn’t anthropomorphize the program as a subservient female?  More likely than not, people would slip into the “they pay you to have fun all day, I could do that” mindset.

Except making those decisions and creating plausible results isn’t really as easy as you think.  While the idea of “selling one’s humanity” is a common accusation directed at movie villains, in a very real sense only those who have invested time into understanding humanity are able to generate simulacra of humanity to sell as a commodity.

Continue Reading

Let P.T. Barnum Be Your Guide To Business Ethics And Industry

Via is P.T. Barnum’s short book, Art of Money Getting. If you are like me in thinking Barnum said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” (he didn’t), you may be surprised at how forthright and industrious his advice is.

I was interested to note just how little has changed since 1880. Barnum’s first piece of advice is along the lines of doing what you love.

Unless a man enters upon the vocation intended for him by nature, and best suited to his peculiar genius, he cannot succeed. I am glad to believe that the majority of persons do find their right vocation. Yet we see many who have mistaken their calling, from the blacksmith up (or down) to the clergyman.

His second bit of advice is location, location, location.

Number 6 includes the value of failing early and often.

“…and he will find he will make mistakes nearly every day. And these very mistakes are helps to him in the way of experiences if he but heeds them. He will be like the Yankee tin-peddler, who, having been cheated as to quality in the purchase of his merchandise, said: “All right, there’s a little information to be gained every day; I will never be cheated in that way again.” Thus a man buys his experience, and it is the best kind if not purchased at too dear a rate.

Number 7, Use the Best Tools he applies to investing resources to retain the best employees, but Drew McManus also just talked about the same thing in a recent interview. Drew related it to not trying to skimp and get by on scaled down student or trial version of software

If you think it is difficult get your marketing efforts to connect with people amid all the things vying for their attention, Barnum says in 1880 a person has to be exposed to your ads or mention of your product/service seven times before they buy.

He has 20 rules in all that include many sound bits of advice like treating your customers well; being charitable; not gossiping; not falling prey to get rich quick schemes; preserving your integrity; working hard; being focused; having sound processes but don’t become enslaved to them; and being both hopeful and practical.

Barnum was definitely a showman and hard charging promoter that was eager to perpetrate hoaxes in order to make money. The more I read about him, the less smarmy he appears to be. He did a lot of work in public health and safety, for example.

There seems to be a tendency to blame him for random unattributed cons. The 2001 episode of The West Wing that claims he was able to sell white salmon by claiming it will never go pink in the can may actually be the first time his name is connected with an apparently widely cited, likely apocryphal, 100 year old tale.

Continue Reading

Great Expectations For Middle of the Road Food

It is probably no surprise to learn that food brings communities together. CityLab recently had a piece about a group in Tallahassee, FL that received a grant from the Knight Foundation to support a project called “The Longest Table,” intended to bring 400 strangers from all parts of the city,

“…to use the dinner table as a medium for generating meaningful conversation among people of diverse ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds.”

I was thinking this sounded a lot like a project I wrote about last fall that occurred in Akron, OH that also set up tables down the middle of the road in order to bring 500 people together for a meal and discussion about how a highway that was being closed down might be re-purposed.

It turns out on closer investigation, not only was that also sponsored by the Knight Foundation, there was an earlier iteration of the Tallahassee meal that occurred last October within a week of the one in Akron.

I think this is secretly a plot by the Knight Foundation to identify the best cooks around the country for some nefarious end!

Actually, an element of that was central to the Akron 500 Plates project. (the identifying good cooks part, not nefarious plotting)

The artists and collaborators collected recipes from each of the 22 neighborhoods in the city and printed them on each of the plates so that everyone went home with a recipe from someone in the community. Then they built tables and distributed them to each of the neighborhoods to provide a gathering point at which conversations and community meals could continue.

500 Plates has made the recipes and toolkit for replicating this in the neighborhoods and other cities available on their website.

The participants in both projects talk about how the format lends itself to discussing somewhat sensitive topics because the environment sets people a little more at ease. This type of event may help arts organizations come in contact and start a conversation with the elusive demographic of people we never meet in order to learn what their barriers to involvement are.

Continue Reading

Contemplating The Claw Back

I frequently write about the need to have a donation acceptance policy. In addition to not having the resources to handle non-cash donations, some donations come with conditions that do not correspond well to organizational missions. Recently many donors have required institutions and buildings be renamed as a condition of their giving.

Sometimes there are problematic issues surrounding the way in which donations are handled or evaluated as well as with the people making the donations.

An article on Non-Profit Quarterly today falls into this latter category and should serve as a cautionary tale for non-profits.

Long story short, two company executives made large donations to Oregon State University and University of Oregon. After an investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission characterized their business model as a classic Ponzi scheme.

As a result,

…a receiver has been appointed by the federal court to rescue as much of investors’ funds as possible by closing dozens of Aequitas-created subsidiaries and investment funds. And when that happens, there is every possibility that the court will also try to “claw back” some of those donated dollars.

My first reaction upon reading about the claw back was, “they can do that?” Obviously, given a second to think, if you were one of those bilked investors you would certainly respond, “Hell yeah they can!”

Unfortunately in this case, in order for someone to be made whole, someone else has to lose. NPQ reports that University of Oregon has already spent the money. How things might proceed in trying to recover the funds, I am not sure.

There was also a little lesson in the NPQ article about crisis management communications. Author Ruth McCambridge had a little criticism for an Oregon State spokesperson who was trying to downplay the impact of one of the donor’s involvement on the many advisory committees his largess garnered an appointment to. (my emphasis)

He was on the college’s Entrepreneurial Education Advisory Board, the Austin Entrepreneurship Program Advisory Board, and the “Dean’s Circle of Excellence,” which is made up of large donors.

In short, the relationship is pretty intimate, but OSU spokesman Steve Clark says that is essentially no big loss. “A businessperson or business representative on a board like that is one of many voices,” Clark said. “They don’t actually establish a course, a direction or a philosophy for the college—in this case the College of Business—but they provide advice, guidance and support to the dean. Their involvement, or their lack of involvement in the future, would not affect the direction of the college.”

Way to go on making the surviving donors feel special, Steve.

Now if I am being honest, I probably would have said something even worse. Assuaging the concerns of one group of people without insulting another is a tough line to walk.

And lest you think financial malfeasance like this doesn’t occur often, this is the second time this particular bolt of lightning has struck the University of Oregon. Back in the 1990s they ended up returning $850,000 to the court appointed receiver and removed the name of the donor from their law school.

I have to think these people weren’t only donating to large universities. The only consolation a smaller organization might have is that the amount donated to them may not be worth trying to recover. On the other hand, in aggregate even relatively small donations can add up to a significant amount.

While it is probably close to impossible for most non-profit arts organizations to identify donations that may potentially boomerang, it can be useful to consider how you might respond in that situation. Even the question of the timing and effort you might put into returning or retaining the funds one year after vs 5 years after it has been spent can be important to contemplate.

Continue Reading