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November 22, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Former Nashvillian Kate O’Neill keynotes last week’s “Greater Nashville IT Summit”

Kate O’Neill was an aspiring songwriter when she moved to Nashville where she lived for 12 years. Now a resident of New York City, she is the Founder and Chief Tech Humanist of KO Insights where she describes herself as “an author, keynote speaker, Fortune 500 advisor, and experience strategy expert focused on helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future by teaching business how to make technology that’s better for humans.”

Last week, O’Neill returned “virtually” to Music City to keynote the one-day “Greater Nashville IT Summit” hosted by the Greater Nashville Technology Council. During her nearly 60-minute presentation, O’Neill provided great insights supporting the event’s theme of “Leading into the World That Is Becoming.”

She started her talk with a couple of key questions that set the stage for what followed.

  • How do we prepare for exponential change, not just technology but also COVID-19, climate, geopolitical upheaval, and our interconnectivity with each other?
  • What does it mean to live in a tech-driven future?

These are issues about which O’Neill has written, most recently in her latest book titled Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans.

As a baseline for understanding the context of her thoughts, she suggested there are three things we need to remember. First, business data is largely about human experiences. Second, the data that is collected represents real people. Finally, technology advances are intended to fulfill real business objectives.

“These three (points) help us understand how business objectives, human outcomes, and tech intersect,” O’Neill (pictured here) said as she used a Venn diagram to illustrate the connection. “We need to think about building the best technology, growing our best businesses, and becoming our best selves.

She added, “We are living in a world increasingly determined by data and optimized by algorithms. When you hear data, think people. When you hear tech, think human experiences.”

To further illustrate the impact that technology is having on the way that we could be functioning in the future and not necessarily in a positive way compared to the past, O’Neill cited Amazon Go. It is both an app that Amazon is licensing and a new chain of quick service grocery stores that the global giant is opening.

Amazon describes the underlying technology as “the world’s most advanced shopping technology so you never have to wait in line.” Customers simply download the app ahead of time, enter their credit card information, and begin shopping at their Amazon Go Grocery. As they remove items they want to purchase from shelves, sensors detect the movement, read the barcode, and debit the shopper’s credit card. When the customer has finished shopping, she or he leaves without the traditional checkout process.

Seamless? Quick? Efficient? That’s for sure, but O’Neill also noted something that alters traditional human behavior. What happens if someone, perhaps behind you in line and unable to reach a high shelf, asks you to retrieve an item for them? Well, once you remove it – not necessarily placing it in your shopping cart – you have bought it.

She asks, “Are we going to be unable to help others (in the future)?” After all, Amazon acquired the national Whole Foods chain in 2017 and is now licensing its “Just Walk Out” technology to other retailers.

“We can’t give absurdity a chance to scale,” O’Neill added in her passionate and animated style. “We should understand that everything is hyper-connected – not the absurdity behind it, but its meaning. We have to accept that all of these things are happening around us.”

With apologies to Bill Gates, she modified one of his famous quotes as follows: “The first rule of any technology used in business is that automation applied to an efficient operation a meaningful experience will magnify the efficiency meaning. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation absurd experience will magnify the inefficiency absurdity.”

Urging attendees to challenge themselves “to look beyond just now,” O’Neill said, “The tech-driven future will be what we make it, not dystopia (an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice) or utopia (where everything is perfect).”

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