‘Conferences Are a Business for the Future’

Author: Michelle Russell       

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Inma Martinez gets this question a lot: “Why don’t you write a book?” “It drives people crazy that I’m not an author,” she told Convene. While she will occasionally write thought pieces for media outlets like Huffington Post, she’s far too busy being a scientist to write a book. “My knowledge comes from the work that I do with other people,” she said, “and really building things with my hands and my brain.”

That foundational work is evident in her role as a venture partner at Deep Science Ventures, a tech-sciences innovation accelerator at London’s Imperial College. There, Martinez mentors entrepreneurs working in data science and product innovation. She also consults as a data scientist on data-analysis projects that focus on human-behavior modeling — which means she excels at putting a human spin on all things technology-related.

When she speaks at the PCMA European Influencers Summit in Monte Carlo, Monaco, next month, Martinez will be pointing the audience of European business-events leaders toward the future — a world in which artificial intelligence and robots are commonplace, and a focus on right-brain skills will be increasingly important. In that future, she sees “very abstract things” like conferences fulfilling a growing need in society.

I’ve read that Deep Science Ventures is a multidisciplinary approach to creating innovation. What different kinds of professionals collaborate?

The initial cohort of people was scientists and engineers, and more and more we got designers and product people involved. When one builds products that are going to be used by humans, you have to also bring on all the right-brain values. You need to combine something extremely intelligent and innovative, but also something that a human can understand and embrace and love and build a connection with.

Most people think that design is something that makes things pretty, but really it’s not. Design resolves challenges. I was a contractor at [design firm] IDEO in the early 2000s. I was part of what they used to call the human-factors department. We were [working on] how humans react to objects and environments, which is what you need when you design products. If you design a product that everyone is fearful of touching, no one is going to use it.

Humans, when they’re confronted by new inventions and new technologies, they need to find a point at which they connect to that at a human level. That’s my work. I have worked in artificial intelligence, I have worked in launching completely new digital services to the world, and my job is: It needs to be friendly, it needs to be approachable, it needs to invite imagination and sentiment — otherwise, people just don’t like those things.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly becoming part of our lives. But there’s a lack of understanding about it, and, you say, a fear about how it will affect our future.

Yes, today most people are really scared of artificial intelligence, because the only things that people see online are these horrific robots from Boston Dynamics — you know, the company that Google had purchased. Those robots look scary, and nobody knows what they’re for. They look invincible and a bit like a Terminator. I’m constantly asked, “Are the robots going to kill us?” This is how scary it gets. 

“Are the robots going to take our jobs?” These are the two fears. 

How do you address those fears?

I usually talk about AI to non-AI people — businesspeople, actually. The way to explain AI in a very simple way is that artificial narrow intelligence [ANI] was the beginning of AI. Why is it narrow? It’s because you program a machine to do one thing and one thing only — very well, but one thing only. We have had AI functioning for us and servicing us for the last 20, 30 years. If you ask yourself where is it in your life, well, your junk mail is an AI. It’s an ANI. When you land at an airport, which gate is selected for your aircraft is actually performed by an AI system. It’s not a human being selecting Gate 13 for you.

We live surrounded by machinery that has been programmed to run by itself and make decisions by itself, basically very simple decisions. No one has a problem with all these things, because somehow it’s very clear the values that it provides to society. These are jobs that a human being will be completely unable to do because of the massive computer power that you would need for your brain, right?

No one has a problem with ANI. Where society starts to get a problem is when no one knows how to explain how we end up in the next level of AI — which is artificial general intelligence. That is pretty much what we in the scientific community call the singularity moment. That is the day that we are able to build a machine that runs an AI software program and is able to think as a human brain. We’re not there simply because we still are not that advanced.

This is my work. There are two camps: People that say, “Let’s develop AI as fast as we can and with the best abilities that we can. We don’t know what we’re going to use it for, but we’re just going to go ahead.” That would be Google’s standpoint. Then there are people like Professor [Stephen] Hawking and Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who say, “We need to create a digital future with a lot of AI but still fit for humans to live in. After all, this is our life.” How do you create that? Well, you create that if you separate what makes a human special and what makes an AI system special.

You’re going to say creativity separates the two, yes?

It’s exactly that. It’s the right brain. The right brain is not just creativity, it’s how human beings interpret data, what they can see. For example, you can teach a machine to be intelligent, but you cannot program a machine to have common sense. Common sense is a right-brain value.

You can teach a machine to do stuff like ANI, but you cannot teach a machine tacit knowledge. That’s one thing that when I mention it at conferences or I explain it to my clients, they get it. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that as a human being you accumulate over time from doing things, from having lived through situations, conceptions, skills acquired, that all combined provide you that superior knowledge. Tacit knowledge cannot be put into words, which is why it cannot be programmed into a machine.

Tacit knowledge is, for example, sales-people that have been selling for 10 or 20 years, who go into a meeting and within seconds they know if the client is going to buy that thing or not. Professional sports players behave and move as if they had eyes behind their backs. That’s tacit knowledge. It’s a knowledge that cannot be transferred to another human being.

This is one of the reasons why the machines will never have tacit knowledge. Machines also are very, very bad at being human. They’re very good at simulating being human. For example, if you were to put a human and a machine in some contextual scenarios of making decisions, the human will draw from his or her tacit knowledge where the machine can only draw upon what it’s been programmed to think.

When I speak with HR managers at major global banks, or the Deloittes of this world, they ask, “What’s going to happen to the human capital in the workforce?” I’m telling them, “You need to retrain workers to be right-brain people and do tasks that the machines will be completely unable to do.” This is the talk of the town right now: The link between artificial intelligence and human capital, and how you will combine both of them and how you will hire people for different skills. It’s not about because they went to a top Ivy League university. It’s a new society of skills and abstract values and knowledge.

Where do face-to-face events fit into this new society?

Conferences are the business of humans and are very abstract things — because one goes to a conference to acquire knowledge, but mostly to meet other people who can ignite ideas. It’s a terrific right-brain business, which makes me really happy for you. It’s a business for the future.

If you want information, you spend days looking at what’s on the internet. But if you want wisdom, you go to a conference. When you’re sitting listen-ing to someone, you get so much valuable feedback. Not just for the person you’re seeing, but you tap into thoughts you had years ago and now they seem so important. It’s a really, really important moment that doesn’t happen at the office, doesn’t happen at home, and doesn’t happen when you’re sitting on a train. It’s a combination of being with others, sharing, and then listening to really smart people that you would never meet in your daily life. These truly right-brain episodes are about to explode; people will need them.

What examples of conference design have you seen that better tap into a right-brain experience?

I go to a lot of design, tech, and scientific conferences, but also fun conferences about things that are going to inspire me that have nothing to do with tech. The formula is always a big amphitheater, so everybody is look-ing in one direction and then there’s either someone doing a keynote or then there’s a discussion panel and then that’s it. The conferences where I really felt, “Wow, I have been to some special event,” were conferences where the actual space was redesigned in some cool way — because when you make changes to the space, that creates innovation and creativity. As soon as you change the traditional format, immediately humans react with, “Okay, something extraordinary is going to happen here.”

That’s the reaction we have to changes. Conferences where you put the stage in the center or you put the stage around the audience — I saw one where speakers were just moving in a circular way around the audience, so you had to constantly move your chair and see where this guy was or what’s happening or what demo happened at the other end.

And screens. Visual content is super-inspiring. Also, you know that most people when they watch someone deliver a keynote, it’s not that they remember every word. They remember the word that makes the connection in their hearts and in their minds. All the rest is about how entertaining it was. Something that is going to snap you out of the routine and make that brain of yours and those ears and those eyes see new things in a new way. It’s a performance. Something that can stimulate your right brain is what really helps you come back home refreshed with ideas, feeling like it was worth going.

This is a sector that really is open to so much innovation and new thinking and new ways and testing things. At the end of the day, the product is a human willing to be tested. Inspiring people is the future. 

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