“He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again,
You might say he found a key for every door.”

– “Rocky Mountain High,” John Denver. –

There’s something about John Denver. Wearing a puffy down vest, bespectacled, performing a wholesome, “nerd chic” brand of Meadow Rock.  Ever-so-slightly-edgy lyrics, like, “Friends around the campfire/and everybody’s high,” suggestive of narcotic altitudes.   

At the peak of his powers in the mid-1970s, Denver captured the zeitgeist of a country weary of Watergate, disillusioned with The Man and The Hippie, alike.  And a country ready to reconnect with its natural resources, seeking a return to responsibility and listening to the songs of the boy-next-door playing his guitar.  “Country roads, take me home …” indeed. 

We are now squarely in the age of AI, algorithms and automation – and instead of heading home, we need to head out and confront some of the biggest challenges our society has ever faced.  So it’s fitting, perhaps, during this riven period, to head to John Denver’s final resting place in the mountains of Colorado to another AI: The Aspen Institute

Taking Action with AI

The fifth annual gathering of the Resnick Aspen Action Forum puts its emphasis squarely on “action” as the heart of the event.  While the solitude of mountains offers the perfect respite from the onslaught of daily digital life, the Action Forum offers values-based leaders worldwide the opportunity to come together, pause, reflect, refresh and recommit to leveraging their roles for good, and to apply new solutions to build a better world.

The agenda will showcase and underscore the efforts of over 300 senior executives making pledges to drive real and lasting change.  Here’s a summary of themes:

  • Cultivating courage: Fearless leadership is a galvanizing theme of this year’s event. At times like this, and to channel another Master of Meadow Rock, Neil Young, it’s not enough to know “you gotta move to start.” You need bravery and courage to break free of inertia and the organizational, political and societal headwinds that stand in the way.  At a time when it can be lonely at the top, the bottom and everywhere in-between, it’s still refreshing to know there’s an esprit de corps in fellowship – and in the network (the non-social-media kind). 
  • The future of work: In a world suffused with robots, how can we ensure that the ways and means of our fellow citizens to put bread on the table isn’t under threat? This is where our work at the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work will be taking center stage.  Those of you familiar with our book What to Do When Machines Do Everything (as well as our more recent “21 Jobs of the Future” report) will know that we are optimists who believe the digital revolution offers a powerful incentive for all institutions to improve.  It’s not just about streamlining existing work; it’s about changing the mindset in sectors in need of drastic modernization.
  • The future of human and AI coexistence: New forms of AI are emerging seemingly daily – and each iteration is becoming more human in sound, appearance and interaction. Should they be? As our AI interactions expand, is there a line we should draw to prevent these machines from becoming “too human?” Why? Is there a risk that future generations’ interactions with humans might become too machine-like, while their trust in machines pulls them from human-to-human connections? What are the ethics involved in entrusting machines to make decisions, particularly given the risk of unintended bias wrought by poor training data that skews machine learning algorithms? Is this all simply inevitable? What leadership is needed here?
  • Preparing for the new global economy: Virtually all of us reading this have grown up in our professional careers in the era of globalization.  So why is it that just as the global economy has lifted more people out of poverty and created more wealth than at any point in human history (with the Internet and AI as contributing tools), it feels as if we’re preparing for “The Splinternet”?  Maybe a Global Village was an illusion all along? At a time of mushrooming trade wars and an AI arms race kicking into high gear, attitudes appear to be fracturing among different regions of the world, especially Europe, the U.S. and China. Geopolitical responses to issues of security, trust and data sovereignty will define what our world looks like, how it operates, who wins and who loses, over the generations to come.
  • “If we were really fearless, we would …” This is the question of the age. Acolytes of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham would argue it’s all about providing the greatest good for the greatest number.  But in the era of the digital revolution (and whether we’re living through Renaissance II vs. Civil War II), what about “the individual”? You? Me? Them?  For example, the preservation of privacy must be part-and-parcel of our AI-first future.  With the incipient Age of the Splinternet upon us, fearful “digital immigrants” have begun referencing Orwell.  Fearless leadership requires us to take a long, hard look at whether “’state’s’ rights” overwrite those of the individual.  Does national security outweigh privacy? Does economic liberty supersede social equality? While the fundamentals of these questions have been with us since the Age of Enlightenment, the future now rests on how we treat and manage data.
  • Fearless youth: As the kids in the streets might put it, “What do we want? Jobs. A house. Affordable healthcare. Respect for all people’s rights. Respect for the police. No mass shootings. No ocean dumping. A meaningful median income raise for our parents and loved ones. Equality. Justice. Truth. Action. Adherence to the Golden Rule. And fearlessly being a good example for others.” It’s all well and good to talk about the future, but it will be our kids who will inherit it.  This year’s Action Forum will be especially meaningful for me, as I will have my 16-year-old daughter Gemma attending the adjacent Action Forum Youth Camp (which I’m paying for on my own nickel, of course).  You’ll also be hearing more from Gemma in a blog post in the near future. 

Answering the Questions of Our Times

Many of these themes make the  headlines every single day.  And while the pace to the future only seems to be accelerating, we need to minimize the uneven distribution of its fruits and render the new pathways and opportunities clear and accessible.  While it’s arguable there’s never been a better time to be alive, why does it also seem that everywhere you turn, reason and discussion of “the civilized” seemingly gives way to the stridency of bullying barbarians bringing out the worst in people?

What’s happening, and what can we do about it?  And how can the power of  AI help make our society, our industries and our ways of living, working, creating, making and communicating better for all – today and tomorrow?  This is especially true for those entering the business world at a time when machines out-think, out-work and out-manage them.  Where do they focus?  What do they study? 

As we head to Aspen to attend the Action Forum, now’s the time to gather new friends around the campfire, ponder the big questions surrounding AI and get ready for the fearless leadership so urgently needed to manage the challenges confronting us all. Let the conversations begin!

Robert Brown

Robert Brown

Rob is a global head of Cognizant Center of the Future of Work market strategy and outreach for business process services. He... Read more