Why We Need Product People to Save AI, by Ashwini Asokan

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON JUNE 24, 2016

In this talk from Mind the Product San Francisco, Ashwini Asokan sums up the state of Artificial Intelligence (AI) today as Brains, Bots, and Bullshit. For the last few years the headlines have been clear – AI could destroy us and ruin humanity, with killer bots taking our jobs and becoming our overlords. Clearly we’re at peak hype for AI.

On the other hand, our actual experience of AI is pretty terrible. Chatbots that don’t understand basic questions, confusing interfaces, and a plethora of AI products that aren’t actually solving problems we users have.

Is there a cognitive dissonance going on here? On one hand we’re frustrated about how dumb our technology is, and on the other we’re terrified they’re about to take over.

A Technology Looking for a Problem?

Ashwini led the mobile experience team at Intel Labs, working with designers, anthropologists and software engineers to explore the future of mobile technology, and together with her Neuroscientist husband she founded Mad Street Den to explore AI, and the opportunities opened by this dissonance.

What they realised is that most AI companies out there focus on building AI tools for engineers, and tend to get acquired quickly. Very few are therefore focused on solving consumer problems, or on building businesses. And so they went back to first principles, did their primary research and saw a huge need for smarter AI driven tools in ecommerce and retail, which led to a virtuous loop where the technology pushed the product forward, which pushed the market forward, which pushed the technology forward.

Crucially, she chalks up their success to having two product founders, which led to a customer focused view of AI, and to building a business instead of just focusing on cool technology.

Building AI Right

AI has become a technology looking for a problem to solve, and worse, AI could start treating everything it sees around it as a problem to solve. So now more than ever we need people in product to be in the center of the discussion around AI. We need product people to be the voice of sanity in the development of AI so that it focuses on actual user needs. Some of the best minds of our time, from neuroscientists to deep learning computer scientists, are building intelligence in ways that none of us can imagine, but they have no idea what anyone is going to do with it. No idea of the social, moral, or legal implications of these advances. Who better than us product people to shape this conversation and make sure all those sides are taken into account?

What does it look like to build meaning, usefulness, delight, entertainment and care into our AI systems?

How do we build AI into the products we’re building and not just make AI visible as bots?

How do we build a roadmap of products when the products evolve using AI?

What does this mean for how we define and think about product features?

We’re at an inflection point and the time for AI is now, but it will take product people to answer these questions.

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20 years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Product Manager at large, advising and mentoring startups while writing Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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