Robots: If you can’t beat ‘em, out talk ‘em

4 minute read


Our guest blog this month is by Renn Vara, Co-Founder of SNP Communications. Renn is a leadership advisor who has worked with founders and leaders of ground-breaking businesses across the world. Renn and the SNP team are affiliates and associates of Caffeine – we work together to help leaders accelerate growth and communicate compelling stories.

Some day you won’t need paper money or checks. You’ll have a little plastic card that pays for everything.” It’s 1978. My sophomore year in college. I’m sitting in an economics class. Barely awake listening to our professor wax on about the future of money.

The class is excited by this vision. Me? Not so much. I’m actually feeling chills up my spine. I’m that struggling student relying on the “float” to eat. The forgotten process of writing checks at strategic locations, with certain types of businesses, buying five days before the cash is deducted from my bank account. I have this down to an art. Without it, I don’t eat or put gas in my car.

Now Elon Musk is actively working on his latest effort called Neuralink. It’s a company working on ways to connect the human brain to computer chips. Or something like that. As he says, paraphrasing, “The human species as we know it will end in the next five years.”

This on top of autonomous cars, robots everywhere, and talk about the redundancy of humans, who live lives of leisure while governments tax robots to pay for everything. I know, what? Then we have the very real application of CRISPR DNA editing which allows the wealthy to build super smart, athletic babies starting… now. Seriously, what?!

Even Stephen Hawking predicts that artificial intelligence will outsmart us in the future. He does give us a 100-year head start, but still. And our public officials are jumping into the fray. Fixated on the impact on manufacturing, lost jobs, displaced workers, and budgets for retraining the multitudes. I’m reminded of the Y2K scare predicting that the world as we know it would end in the year 2000. It didn’t.

But this time I’m not feeling the chills of fright. Nope. I actually feel superior. Ready. “I got this” kind of confidence. A bit cocky even. It dates back to 1996 and that famous chess game between IBM’s Deep Blue computer and chess champion Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue won. Garry stomped off, pissed. Since then this human-versus-computer game continues with the computer generally winning in the head-to-head battles.

But here’s where it gets interesting. When you combine humans with a computer against a computer or even many computers, the combo team usually wins. Actually always wins. The human brings creativity. Collaboration. Intuition. Perspective. Combined with the speed and comprehensive knowledge of a computer, they are unbeatable. Westworld aside of course. Even pissed Kasparov concludes, “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.”

I grew up in a generation told to specialize. My business-savvy aunt would often scold me while in high school, “Don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none.” Everyone doomed me to failure. Thank God I didn’t listen. Instead I focused on being a generalist. A person of experience. Diverse jobs and locations. Learned about the world. Different perspectives. Went deep but without sacrificing the thirty-thousand-foot view.

And here I am. If I have a profession, it’s communication. I can talk. But it’s more than talk. It’s being open to perspectives, to logics, to different points of view. Consider the unknown along with the known. Make sense of multiple inputs and complexities. I knew this would come in handy some day.

Because now I’m in a future world of robots. Machines who need some explaining. Machines who need collaboration to be successful. Machines who can’t do it alone. And even more, a world of humans who work with them. So with that, here are my suggestions for getting through the coming revolution:

  • Invest in your communication skills. As I often say to founders and C-level leaders, “You can hire experts for everything except communication. That you have to own yourself.
  • Engage the world. Learn different perspectives, experiences, histories, human behaviors, beliefs.
  • If you have an expertise, expand on it. Find its boundaries and learn its connections to other things. Discover context. Understand it.
  • And finally, open your mind. Question yourself. Your perspectives. Your history. Embrace change.

Some years ago we had a customer who was in the later years of his career. He was a success by any measure. Decades of experience leading a large sales organization. And an Ivy League-trained lawyer to boot. But he never stopped learning. In his final year or two of work, he led a revolution in how people-managers inspire and lead their teams. He was an innovator. A change agent. This while in his late 60s.

I was inspired then and am now. He could have settled on his accomplishments. Reveled in them. Pushed back on change in the name of experience and history. But instead he challenged himself to change, to be open to different perspectives. This minor yet profound act made him relevant until and even after he retired.

That relevance, that willingness to change, will win over in this coming age of robots. Invest in arts of communication and you’ll be just fine.

Oh, and this plastic card thing. It took some time and frankly timing to get past the fear of losing the float. But I did. It did come to an uncomfortable conversation with my hometown bank president during my senior year in college. The float caught up with me in a pile of bad checks sitting in the middle of his desk. Thank God I could talk. Even then.


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Renn Vara
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