If this, then that

1
by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Today while listening to Bloomberg radio I overheard the Chairman of IBM comment upon current computer programming by summarizing it as, “If this, then that“. Though the expression is new to me, apparently it enjoys the celebrity of an industry standard:

IFTTT (pronounced /ɪft/) is a free web-based service that people use to create chains of simple conditional statements, called applets. An applet is triggered by changes that occur within other web services such as Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest. For example, an applet may send an e-mail message if the user tweets using a hashtag, or copy a photo on Facebook to a user’s archive if someone tags a user in a photo. IFTTT is an initialism for If This Then That.

I must say that having read that Wikipedia explanation I am rather pleased that it was summarized in the Bloomberg interview as the basis for current computer programming since otherwise I may have missed the point.

 

Ginni Rometty is chairman, president and chief executive officer of IBM.  Mrs. Rometty was appointed president and CEO effective January 1, 2012. She became chairman of the Board of Directors on October 1, 2012.

Mrs. Rometty began her career with IBM in 1981 in Detroit, Michigan. Since then she has held a series of leadership positions in IBM, most recently as senior vice president and group executive, IBM Sales, Marketing and Strategy. In this role, she was responsible for business results in the 170 global markets in which IBM operates and pioneered IBM’s rapid expansion in the emerging economies of the world.

Prior to this, Mrs. Rometty served as senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services, where she led the successful integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. This acquisition was the largest in professional services history, creating a global team of more than 100,000 business consultants and services experts. In recognition of her leadership in the professional services industry, Mrs. Rometty was honored with the Carl Sloane Award 2006, given by the Association of Management Consulting Firms. 

In prior leadership roles, Mrs. Rometty served as general manager of IBM Global Services, Americas, as well as general manager of IBM’s Global Insurance and Financial Services Sector.   

Mrs. Rometty serves on the Council on Foreign Relations; the Board of Trustees of Northwestern University; and the Board of Overseers and Board of Managers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. 

She holds a Bachelor of Science degree with high honors in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern University.

What further arose during Mrs. Rometty’s interview is that artificial intelligence (AI) is on the move.  Now, agreed, everybody knows that!  But hearing it from the Chairman of IBM is more than a little probative.  She cavorts with the likes of Presidents and Prime Ministers – the leaders of countries not just corporations.  Plus she said she “doesn’t abuse the privilege” which I thought captured a rare insight into the mind of an exceptionally capable person.

The reason, by the way, I am impressed by IBM is that it represented what I first encountered as the truly remarkable transition from the manual typewriter to the computer, an incredible leap by any standard.  My first computer was an IBM computer.  It cost $3,500 and of course it couldn’t do a particle of what I can now do on my 4-inch iPhone SE. Yet that plodding computer was at the time (I am guessing 1987 or thereabouts) the gateway to an entirely new world.

 

The current conversation surrounding AI unquestionably heralds yet another new generation of technology.  According to what Mrs. Rometty said the development of AI will remove technology from the IFTTT vernacular which underpins our modern programming technology and replace it with “reasoning” (that’s my word, not hers), technology which can analyze data and learn to make its own conclusions. This of course is particularly relevant in the context of the decisions made by Boards of Directors of corporations. Mrs. Rometty unhesitatingly observed that of all the decisions made, one-third are right, one-third are not optimal and one-third are wrong. The possibilities of AI are staggering to contemplate! And knowing as I do how entrenched I have historically proven myself to be, I won’t even attempt to delineate the conceivable capabilities of artificial intelligence.  What I do know however is that – based upon my experience that technology always makes things easier and better – we’re in for some wonderful surprises! Whether AI will completely alter the predictability of IFTTT technology is a matter of enormous scope. Does it for example resemble harnessing genius? Will technology imagine the unimaginable? Is creativity strictly mathematical? Are we bound to the empirical world only? Will AI loose the reins which control us? Are we in search of a new and greater “power”? Are we any closer to solving the mysteries of the universe?

The contemplation of these heady matters reminds us that as magical as word processing is compared to the typewriter, these technological delights continue to be insinuated by the human spirit which in spite of the adeptness of the technology may always be the sine qua non. In the end technology – whether predictable or analytical – may simply represent a faster and more efficient way of doing what we can already accomplish, a mere tool in so many words. If so the transition from IFTTT to AI may be a distinction without a difference. Whether we’re sitting in front of an IBM computer or scribbling a poem on folio paper, it is arguably the same world in 2017 as in 1917 and 1817 and even 1617. Will anything ever really change “if this, then that”?

**********

By the way the Bloomberg interview between David Rubenstein and Ginni Rometty contains some really interesting stuff about successful women generally.  If you’re interested, here’s the link:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2017-08-23/the-david-rubenstein-show-ginni-rometty-video