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Posted on 27 June 2017 by Craig Thielen

AlphaGo is Google’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine aimed at tackling the world’s most demanding strategy game, Go. Google announced it is stepping down from competitive matches after defeating the world’s best talent. The latest to succumb was Go’s top-ranked player, Ke Jie, who lost 3-0 in a series hosted in China.

The AI, developed by London-based DeepMind, which was acquired by Google for around $500 million in 2014, also overcame a team of five top players during a week of matches. So what’s next for AlphaGo - retire to a more simple life, like Chess? DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis explained, “The research team behind AlphaGo will now throw their energy into the next set of grand challenges, developing advanced general algorithms that could one day help scientists as they tackle some of our most complex problems, such as finding new cures for diseases, dramatically reducing energy consumption, or inventing revolutionary new materials.”

What does a computer programmed to master a child’s game have to do with business? In my opinion, a great deal.

Every business should be worried about the tidal wave of digital disruption taking over the world.  Thousands upon thousands of start-ups are formed each year with one purpose, to put traditional companies out of business. A perfect example of this is Uber; in just five years they not only created a popular and global digital taxi service, they re-invented the entire transportation industry and created a market capitalization greater than General Motors. AlphaGo is a stark reminder of how advanced computing has become and more importantly, where it is going Based on this, every business should think ahead three to five years and ask themselves, how could my business be disrupted and how am I preparing for it?

I know what you are thinking, “this is just one fancy program designed to play a game, and it will be many years before it can do complex business tasks.” Think again! Go is revered as the planet’s most demanding strategy game, which is why it has made an ideal field to both develop AI technology and plot machines against humans; this brilliant strategy provides a perfect learning ground for the AlphaGo team.  Much like IBM’s Watson, it provides a complex problem that goes head to head against the smartest humans. If the smartest humans can be beat at a game, why can’t they be replaced in millions of less complex tasks and jobs? Definitely a valid question.

So, what is IBM Watson doing in retirement after beating the world’s best Chess players? Curing cancer, literally. Several large hospital systems are now running their Cancer diagnosis through Watson to ensure the best, most informed recommendations; this is impressive, but only the beginning for AI.  If AI is capable of playing a key role in the most complex life threatening problems, what could it do for your business?

Looking for a more practical business example, how about a Japanese insurance company who recently laid off 30 knowledge workers and replaced these resources with an AI engine? Again, we are just getting started. A recent study in the UK estimates over 15 million jobs could be replaced by smart robots within the next 15 years.

Beyond the technology, AlphaGo teaches us another valuable lesson, the power of continuous learning.  AlphaGo is a deep learning machine, it learns from every game it plays, simulates or studies. Business is a human learning machine, it is said the most successful organizations in the world are the best learning organizations. How is your organization at learning from practical experience, be it good, bad or indifferent? How quickly can you learn from it, adapt and improve? Business Agility is an emerging field of management philosophy, which leverages Lean, Agile and Organizational Effectiveness thinking and practices to better react, adapt and apply change in an organization.

One thing is certain, advanced technologies like AI are here to stay. While practical progress of them may seem slow, once they hit a tipping point, everything changes. If you don’t believe me, just look at companies like Uber, Facebook, and Twitter. When you combine AI with other rapidly progressing technologies like automation, robotization, mobilization and digitization, it creates exponential change possibilities. So take a moment to ask yourself, how will it potentially affect your industry and business?  Will you be a leader, a follower, or a laggard? Will followers or laggards survive? Are you leveraging your human talent using Business Agility and Lean Agile thinking? Are you a learning organization? This is what we can learn from AlphaGo. 

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Craig is a management consultant passionate about helping organizations gain Business Agility for sustained competitive advantage. Craig has been honored to consult for many world-class organizations such as Target, Land O’Lakes, Pentair, General Mills, Johnson Controls and hundreds more. Craig is a nationally recognized thought leader on the topics of business agility, enterprise transformation, innovation, culture, change leadership, and strategy. Craig currently is the Chief Essentialist at Trissential/SQS, the global leader in Business Agility centered on Quality.