Staying relevant amidst machines

There is an interesting story about how Amazon and Netflix used two different approaches to make a blockbuster hit series from the same starting point – tonnes of user data.

Amazon relied purely on the data and did not want humans biases to to taint the decision making. They created a show about politics that was completely aligned with their data on user preferences. That show was called “Alpha House”:  something many of us have not heard of.

Netflix used a combination of data science and the human art of discerning what makes a good story. They analyzed the data using machine related techniques, but used humans (experts in film making, storytelling etc.) to synthesize these insights and create a series. The result was another show about politics – “The House of Cards”. Only this time around, everybody has heard of it.

The takeaway? Machines are currently great at data-analysis – at taking data apart to generate insights. But they aren’t as good at synthesis – to put the insights back together and make meaningful decisions. Netflix succeeded in creating a blockbuster series by separating these two elements – letting machines do the analysis and entrusting humans with the synthesis.

The reason this is true is because data synthesis is still an art. If a machine were asked to invent a new flavour of ice-cream for a particular audience, it is likely to look through the data, learn that blueberry and nutella are really popular, and combine them to make a rather unsavoury blend. The reason you instantly know that this recipe is a disaster is because of your frontal lobe – that wonderful part of your brain unique to humans. It can simulate experiences, and thereby immediately guess that those flavours do not go well together.

In the human brain, the ability to analyze and synthesize rely on different parts. The part that is traditionally known as the left-hemisphere houses our logical and analytical capabilities. For data synthesis, we additionally lean on our creativity and imagination. While machines are getting extremely good at replicating the logical, problem solving parts of our brain, the ability to imagine, connect and resonate with other humans is still an art.

Therefore, humans who develop and sustain their creative and artistic sides will stay relevant in an increasingly machine-dominated world.

Inspiration: Sebastian Wernicke’s TED talk titled How to use data to make a hit TV show

3 thoughts on “Staying relevant amidst machines

  1. You have zeroed in on what differentiates a human being from an automaton and I am in agreement with it. However, the title and the conclusion of your post seem to imply, or to implicitly accept, competition between humans and machines. In my opinion, this is non-humanistic. Technology is a tool in the hands of human beings and not something that we have to compete with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, the extent to which technology can be used as a tool, depends on complementarity.

      If the skills you have as a human are different from that of a machine, your sum is greater than the individual parts. If the skill is the same, one ends up substituting the other.


      1. Whether to substitute or not is a choice that humans can make. That depends on whether you value human beings as and of themselves, whether you think a human being has intrinsic value irrespective of their contribution to productivity. This is the humanist perspective.


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