Monday, December 26, 2011

The Modern Fool

Although most often associated with English courts of Medieval and Renaissance times, the Court Jester has actually appeared throughout history as an important member of Royal Courts around the world.  Jesters came in two flavors, the "natural fool" and the "licensed fool".  The natural fool appears to have been pure entertainment for the court, and was often afflicted with some type of mental or physical disability.  (This period of history was not known for its political correctness!)  The licensed fool was a completely different case.  Their job was to be critical of the Monarch and the Court - often using fairly severe ridicule to make his point.  Court Jesters were given great latitude by their Monarch, allowing them to say things that no other member of the Court would dare to say.  They often made enemies of powerful members of the Court, but as long as they were favored by the Monarch, they were safe.  For example, a story is told of a Persian Fool who, when the Shah asked whether there was a shortage of food, said: "Yes, I see your Majesty is eating only 5 times a day."   Fools were also often responsible for telling the Monarch bad news.  When the French fleet was destroyed by the English Navy in the Battle of Sluys, the French Jester told King Philipe VI that the English Sailors "don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French."

I believe the modern corporation has revived the ancient tradition of the Court Jester.  The modern Court Jester is now known as the advisory business consultant.  The business consultant is now a fixture in the boardrooms of many powerful CEOs and corporate elite.  You have probably seen them - they hover near the seat of power, acting as personal advisors and confidants to their corporate monarch.  Just like the Fools of Olde England, the business consultant is often the only member of the executive team that can truly be openly critical of anyone or any idea without fear of repercussions.  As long as they are favored by their benefactor, they can wield enormous power, and they may have more direct access to the top decision maker than any other member of the executive team.  Very few people outside of the top corporate tier are even aware of the business consultant, let alone the influence they carry.  They are paid to stay behind the throne, and they are often very good at working from the shadows.

From where I'm sitting, that sounds like a pretty sweet gig.  Sure, your picture isn't going to be displayed in the company's annual report - but in many companies, you may enjoy a much longer tenure than the majority of the senior leadership team.  But more importantly, the business consultant enjoys a freedom of thought and action that is found nowhere else in the corporation.  In most corporations today, it seems that to get to the big table, one of the most important skills is the ability to interpret, process and respond in veiled and encrypted corpspeak.  No one speaks their mind and everything that is said must be instantly and carefully analyzed for hidden maneuverings that may result in a loss of status among your peers.  This seems to go beyond mere "politics" - it seems to have risen to the level of a TV drama - every week there is a new crisis, and alliances shift every 10 minutes.

Only the business consultant seems to be above the daily fray.  It's not that they are unaware of the nonsense - they are absolutely listening to, and understanding, the corpspeak debates - it's just that they are much more likely to cut through the BS and say what really needed to be said without trying to hide it within multiple layers of personal ladder-climbing moves.

I find this a curious example of human behavior - and I also find it fascinating that this type of behavior has been present within groups of powerful human beings for thousands of years.  What is it about the human condition that causes this model to so often be repeated?  It baffles me why a corporate president would populate the executive offices with the best minds they can find - and then still feel the need to hire an external consultant as a "trusted advisor".

I suppose it is possible that the executive business consultant is simply another status symbol - like the corner office, the first class travel and the $1000 designer shoes - all the cool kids have at least one.  If that is the primary purpose, that's very disturbing.  These same leadership teams are downsizing employees, shrinking benefits and requiring employees to take unpaid days off to meet analyst estimates - and yet they are paying a business consultant an amount equal to the salary of 3 or 4 employees.

Another explanation is that the use of consultants may be seen by the executive team as a way to reduce personal risk.  When a decision goes bad, it at least gives the president a way to deflect some of the blame - "Hey, I was advised by the best consultant in the industry and we did everything they said to do.  No one could have known this was a bad idea."  Of course, the consultant will be fired, but the president might survive.

I know this sounds cynical - and (of course) no executive would ever admit to these reasons - but I think they make about as much sense as having a roomful of bajillion dollar senior executives that need a consultant to tell them how to run their own company.  At least the medieval courts had an excuse - the royalty was composed of Lords & Ladies that inherited their posts, and eventually, the royal gene pool started getting pretty shallow.  As far as I know, inbreeding isn't typically a problem in corporate boardrooms - yet...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Artificial Intelligence

No, this is not another story about killer robots....

I just finished "Patches", a science fiction short story by Lesley Choyce.   It is about a dystopian society where all human beings were connected to a central information store called "The Source" through a skin patch that provided a direct interface between the human brain and "The Network".  The Source was sentient, and had taken control of The Network and all humans, issuing pain and information through the patches to maintain order in society.  An android appendage of The Network made a statement that all human beings were equal and they were no more than a collection of their biological parts.  His belief was that because the Network contained all the information known to humans (by tapping directly into their brains and all other data storage devices) it also possessed all the actual knowledge in the world - because knowledge and information were identical.  A small group of humans, struggling to free themselves from the Network, completely disagreed, and said that knowledge was much more than simply a collection of information.

I think this story points out a very likely failure in a machine ever achieving true artificial intelligence.  It seems very plausible to me that a machine would be unable to discern the difference between information and knowledge.  I think this concept may be one of the fundamental barriers that must be overcome for any machine intelligence to achieve sentience.

Unfortunately, many corporations are falling into this same trap - and I believe IT professionals have merrily led the corporate leaders down this false trail.  Since the beginning of the computer age, we have been chanting the power of information - and we have said that without good information, a company cannot make good decisions and is doomed to failure.  Heck, even our own names for what we do: "Information Technology", "Information Services" or even the old "Data Processing" show that we are focused on the collection and management of the information - not the knowledge that information represents.

There is no better example of this than the typical corporate HR form used to apply for a new job.  A couple of years ago, I wrote about the ridiculous amount of information an applicant must provide in order to apply for a job using the typical online recruiting systems.  I would claim that most of this data provides nearly zero additional knowledge to the company - it certainly is not used during the typical hiring process, or if it is, it is used only in the most crude way to filter out candidates and reduce the size of the potential candidate pool.

The same is true for a vast amount of other information gathered from all across the corporation.  There are massive amounts of data being collected, massaged and reported that provide little or no additional knowledge to the company.  This represents a huge expenditure of corporate resources for absolutely no business value.  It also demonstrates a fundamental problem within many corporate boardrooms: the inability of senior business leaders to define the key metrics that are used to run their company.

There are certainly some companies that have defined their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and they really do use those metrics to make tactical and strategic decisions.  If you work in one of these companies - you are fortunate - count your blessings.  It was only when I moved to a company that did not have defined KPIs that I learned that it was even possible to run a large corporation without good business metrics.

What is really sad is that it seems these companies do not understand or recognize the issue.  To them, sitting in an Executive Team meeting and suddenly asking:  "How did the flood in Thailand affect our sales to Southeast Asia compared to how our sales were affected in 1980 by the election of Ronald Reagan?" is a critical data point that will drive all future corporate strategy.  The rest of the executives turn to the CIO and say:  "That's a simple report, you have all the data, right?"  And the CIO's response is (of course) "I'm sure we do, we'll have that for you later today."

After delaying 3 critical projects and pulling four straight all-nighters, the report is finally produced and scheduled to run weekly for the executive team meetings.  However the CIO is mad that your data warehouse and business intelligence tools are so poorly implemented that you couldn't meet his expectations.  When the report is sent to the executive team, there is a "thank you" reply from the CEO - and nothing is every heard about that report again.  Six weeks later, you check the logs for that report, and you find that there has been exactly one person who has ever accessed the new report - the IT analyst who was tasked to make sure all the reports run successfully every week...

OK, the report criteria I used for this example was fictional, but everything else was a regular occurrence.  The senior leadership believed it was perfectly acceptable to ask any random "I wonder..." question and the data would be available and the report easily produced.  It never occurred to them how disruptive their seat of the pants management style was to everyone involved in producing those ad-hoc reports.  And even worse, the ad-hoc reports were often not actually used for anything - they were apparently just an idle thought that wasn't actually the basis of any decision making process.

In some companies, this behavior is combated by purchasing more ad-hoc reporting tools in an attempt to provide the executives and their staff the ability to run their own reports.  That may work in larger companies where their is enough staff to cater to the executive whims - but not in companies that run much leaner.  Unfortunately, expecting executives to do their own ad-hoc reporting is a foolish hypothesis - it's simply NOT going to happen, and the result is the worst of all worlds - you have spent the money on the easy to use tools, you do not have the staff to do the ad-hoc analysis, and the executives are still asking the questions and looking at the CIO to provide the answers.

Now, let's say that you are finally fed-up, and you decide to launch a new business intelligence initiative.  The consultants tell you that step 1 is to define the KPIs that are used to drive the business decisions.  So, you go to the executives, and you ask:  "What are the key metrics that drive your decision making processes?"  You get a blank look, followed by the typical executive 2-step shuffle that makes this your fault for not providing the executive with the proper information for them to make *this* decision.  You have no choice but to beat a hasty retreat and rethink your chosen career path.

When you get back to your office and calm down, you realize a startling fact:  the executives do not really know how they make decisions.  They *are* making decisions - they do it every day in all parts of the business - but they simply can't define what information they use to do it.  Even more frightening, you also realize that if they have not defined those metrics, there is absolutely no way the decisions they do make can be consistent, logical or data driven.  Good grief, no wonder the decisions often seem to be somewhat random - they *are* somewhat random!

In an ideal world, the key business decisions are driven by specific data elements and threshold values.  Above the threshold, the decision is X, below the threshold, the decision is Y.  If you have all the key operational metrics defined, your business can almost run on remote control.  At least, that's what the business consultants and best selling authors say.  Of course, in the real world, there are always un-quantifiable factors that influence the decision.  It might be office politics, shareholder sentiment, perceived risk or simply a hunch.    However, should you let those influences drive your decision in the face of opposing data?  Of course, if you do not have the data (opposing or otherwise), then those influences are all you have.  That doesn't seem to me to be a prudent business strategy.

Developing KPIs really is difficult, I'm certainly not trying to say it is easy, because it is not.  You must force yourself to determine the key operational decisions, and also determine what data you use to make those decisions.  In addition, you *must* also determine the threshold values for each data element.  Without a defined threshold to tell you whether to move the lever left or right, you are simply looking at data without a business context.  You may find that some of your decisions are based on trends - upward, flat or downward - once again, without knowing how you will use the data, seeing the data will not help you make the decision.

I suspect that some executives do not really want to define their decision making processes.  They may believe, or want others to believe, that their decision making is a combination of unique insight, luck and magic that is only found within their well-paid head.  If I was an investor in a company with leadership like that, I would be very, very nervous.  I don't want to invest in unique insight, luck and magic - that might be OK for betting the longshots at Santa Anita horse races, but not my 401k money!  I want leadership that can articulate how they run the business, and I want to know that they aren't just flying by the seat of their pants.

I urge all business leaders to take a critical look at the information they are collecting, processing and reporting.  If you can't directly link the data to a specific business decision - then stop collecting and reporting on that data - it's a waste of your precious resources.  Encourage employees to question all requests for new data and new reports.  "Because the VP wants it" is NOT a good reason.  Every report should have a purpose, and "I've always run that report on the 3rd Tuesday of every month" is NOT a valid business purpose.  Don't just collect information - always strive to create knowledge.                            

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Big Lie

Is honesty a dead concept inside corporations?  Why do managers lie to their employees?  Is it all just to protect the company against litigation?  "Open and honest feedback" is a catch phrase in the majority of corporate statements on ethics and values - but I believe the reality is that the vast majority of corporate leaders refuse to give *any* feedback - and when they do - it will be (at best) corp-speak: legally blessed yet completely meaningless.  At worst, it will be a complete fabrication - a lie to satisfy the employee and make them shut-up and get out of their office.

I recently read a blog (sorry - I didn't save the link) by an HR recruiter that said that the primary reason many companies do not provide feedback to job candidates is that often that feedback simply starts an argument with the job candidate and leads to job candidates responding with an abusive reply.  I'm sure that's true - especially when the interview was as ridiculous as some of the interviews I have been on - and you then find out that it was a waste of time because they promoted an internal candidate or they give you a BS reason that is an obvious brush off.  Of course, some candidates are also just jerks - and they would blast back at any failure to be hired.

However, is that really a good excuse for a company not living by their own corporate values?  Perhaps they should change the corporate values to say "Open and honest communication, when it is convenient and doesn't lead to conflict."  In addition, even a system generated "thank you for applying, however you have not been selected for this role" is FAR better than simply providing nothing back to the candidate.  How rude do you have to be to invite a candidate in for a face-to-face interview, then simply never respond to the candidates phone calls or emails asking for a status?  Are you really that busy, or do you simply have so little thought for another human being?  I suspect the latter - because job candidates are not really people - they are just resumes or names in a database.

Of course, it's not just the recruiting process where honesty is dead.  Lack of honest communication runs rampant through organizations.  I pity the poor employee who actually believes the senior executive when they give the "I have an open door policy" speech.  The typical senior executive wants to hear only "It's done" from their employees.  If you are part of the inner circle of a corporate leader, you can see the planning that goes into the half-truths, misdirection and spin-doctoring at the top - of course, you won't see the planning that goes into the spin applied to *you*...

The typical justification for not being honest when speaking to employees is that managers "must do what's in the best interest of the company."  If they actually told the employees that they will all be replaced within a year with lower cost offshore contractors, the employees would all bail and the corporation would grind to a halt.  So, the managers lie.  They say that the future looks bright.  They say that you are a key member of the team that will lead the company into the future.  They say that there are no plans to cut staff.  They say these things at the same time they are working with HR to eliminate your position, meeting with candidates to "upgrade" you for another resource and/or working with offshore staffing firms to move your job to Bangalore, Bucharest or Shenzhen.

Once upon a time, when a company wanted to use a different technology, the project would include training for the existing IT staff so that they would be able to work with and support the new technology.  Now, the existing staff is simply replaced with new resources already trained in the new technology.  If there are still older legacy systems that also need to be supported, contractors are hired until those systems can be replaced.  The IT staff is rotated with the systems, and since the typical life of an IT system is 3-5 years, that is also the maximum time you can expect to keep your corporate IT job.

OK - so looking at this from the CEO's position, what's wrong with this scenario?  He's getting the best IT resources for the lowest cost, and he doesn't have to continuously spend money to train his internal staff.  After all, once they are trained, they might just leave the company for another gig anyway.

I see several issues with this short-sighted strategy:

1. No functional business knowledge continuity - It is tempting to believe that the tech geeks in your IT department don't need to understand how your business operates.  That is dead wrong.  The more the technical staff knows about how the business operates, the better your systems will match your true business requirements.  Translating functional business requirements into technical system designs is the absolute key to any successful technology project.  It is the difference between happy & efficient users, and an expensive pile of useless HW & SW.  Fail to recognize this at your peril.

2. Failure to form a Business-IT partnership - If you have fallen into the fallacy of believing your IT staff doesn't need to understand your business, then it must follow that you believe all business knowledge must come from the business users.  Congratulations, what you have just established is the typical Business vs IT organization where neither understands the other's world, and the business sees IT as simply a group of techies that need to be told what to do.  Conversely, IT sees the business as demanding technophobes that have no clue what they are asking IT to build.  There can be no partnership without understanding, and there can be no understanding without knowledge being shared in both directions.  This requires the ability to build long-term relationships at the employee level - not just at the executive table.

3. Lack of Innovation - It's all well and good to hold the CIO responsible for the long-range IT strategic vision - that's his job.  However, the CIO often does not see the day-to-day technical challenges that are faced by his staff.  It is very common for these daily challenges to drive ideas for improvements in processes and systems that represent the source of innovation within the IT department.  If your staff is composed of specialists in your current technology and augmented with low-cost contractors, you may very well have limited the amount of innovation that will be generated by your staff.  An employee looking at a maximum of a 3-5 year gig has very little incentive to maximize efficiency - particularly if that efficiency means a new technology that will ultimately result in them being replaced with another specialist.

4. No commitment - You are simply fooling yourself if you think your employees are unaware that a new technology means the end of their job.  They absolutely do know - they know because they are not receiving training on the new system, and their role on the implementation project is limited to "data conversion and migration" or "legacy system interfaces".  It will only be a personal desire to do good work that will keep your staff motivated.  You haven't earned their commitment and, quite frankly, you don't deserve it.  You will blame your project manager and the project team for not hitting their milestones - but really, you should be looking in the mirror to see who is to blame.

I'm not an executive (clearly!) but to me, the possible gains from this type of short-term thinking does not seem worth it.  Not when very expensive, business critical systems and projects are on the line.

There is another solution - don't lie to your employees.  If you believe a new system will mean an employee will be replaced, then be honest with them.  Tell them the end date, and give them an incentive package to stick around and hit that date.  The money is a pittance compared to failing to complete the new project.  Companies want it all - they want their employees to be happy little trolls toiling away in the salt mines, and they also want the ability to sweep them to the gutter when they aren't needed any longer.  But it won't work. Even the flying monkeys knew she was an evil witch.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Rise of the Machines

As most of you know, I'm a long-time fan of science fiction.  Intelligent robots are a huge part of the science fiction universe.  The concept of a robot is very old - accounts and stories relating to mechanical automatons have been found in ancient Greece and the Zhou Dynasty of China.  I suspect the idea is actually much older.  It would not surprise me if soon after man was intelligent enough to figure out the concept of "work", we then tried to figure out a way to have someone or something else do the work for us.  So, in this post, I'm celebrating some of my favorite robots and sentient machines from books, movies and TV.

Caveat:  This is MY list - my opinions.  If you disagree with me because I left your favorite 'bot off the list or I don't have them ranked the same way you would - too bad.  Honestly, I really don't care what you think - go make your own list!

10. T-800 Terminator - First up, in 10th position is that unstoppable metallic man - The Terminator.  I'm actually partial to the inner metal frame version of the T-800, without the Arnold outer-skin.  The skeleton just seems so much more menacing.  You might wonder why I have chosen the original T-800 instead of the later, liquid metal T-1000 or the really hot but deadly female T-X.  The answer is obvious:  because the T-800 ultimately kicked their liquid asses!  Even though the T-800 was the good guy in the second & third movies, there's really not a lot of redeeming qualities to the Terminator - he's your basic killer robot.  Don't look here for any insights about the human psyche - he just kills things.

9.  Andrew Martin - This robot is from a book titled "The Bicentennial Man" by the undisputed king of robot stories, Dr. Isaac Asimov.  It is NOT about the horrible Robin Williams film of the same name.  Asimov created the terms "robotics" & "positronic brain", and in perhaps the greatest concept in all of SF, the "Three Laws of Robotics":

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

However, it is not these laws that cause me to include Andrew Martin, in fact, he was not the first Asimov robot with the Three Laws.  No, what sets Andrew Martin apart is that over a period of 200 years, he actually *becomes* human.  He began as a fairly mundane household servant android, but he had something no other robot had - a spark of creativity.  With the help of many organic upgrades and a brilliant legal team, Andrew eventually proved that he was indistinguishable from any other human being.  The court still refuses to declare him legally human because his brain does not age and eventually die.  So, Andrew takes the final fateful step - and asks a robot surgeon to allow him to age and die.  However, the robot surgeon refuses - because to it, Andrew *is* already human and the operation would violate the First Law.  Andrew manages to convince the robot surgeon that he is not human, and finally *does* become human in the eyes of the court.    Of course, to the people who have known Andrew for 200 years, he has ALWAYS been human...

8. Gay Deceiver - Gay Deceiver is not strictly a robot, and she is definitely not homosexual - she is a sentient computer.  She also happens to be the navigation computer in a Ford car/aircraft/spacecraft/time machine/universe translating machine.  Gay Deceiver was the creation of Robert A. Heinlein, arguably the greatest of the Grand Masters of SF, from the book "The Number of the Beast".  She is a very special craft - able to move between universes as well as time and space.  In addition, Gay Deceiver is also a typical RAH female character - smart, funny, sarcastic and she loves to talk dirty.  At the beginning of the story, she is not sentient - but thanks to programming upgrades and some magic from Glinda the Good while visiting Oz, Gay Deceiver becomes much more than just a flying car.

7. H.A.L. 9000 - In 7th spot, we have another sentient computer, the H.A.L. 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) from yet another of the Grand Masters of SF, Arthur C. Clarke in the very well known book "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the outstanding Stanley Kubrick film of the same name.  HAL was a GREAT villain - never showing ANY emotion as it systematically kills the entire crew of the spacecraft, except for a single crewman.  On one level, HAL is just another killer robot - yet its soft, non-emotional, non-threatening manner is anything but evil.  We must also remember that Arthur C. Clarke wrote this story in 1968 - before man had set foot on the moon and only 7 years after Alan Shepard made the first orbit around the Earth.  I think that if I had to choose between fighting the Terminator robot or HAL, I would choose to battle the Terminator - HAL makes the Terminator seem about as smart as a can opener.

6. Gort -  Gort is the robot guardian from the great 1951 film, "The Day the Earth Stood Still".  Hollywood must be completely out of ideas.  It seems like every great old SF movie is being remade with one of the overpaid pretty boy actors and millions of dollars in computer graphics.  The 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves is a horrible film - and what they did to Gort is a travesty.  The *real* Gort was the perfect robot enigma - never uttered a word, never displayed the slightest hint of emotion - he just followed the orders of his master EXACTLY.  Gort was most menacing when he was simply standing completely still.  Nothing the puny humans could do affected him in the slightest, yet a mere glance from Gort was enough to vaporize guns, tanks and men.  Try that Terminator!

5. Lost in Space Robot - Yeah, he *really* got screwed when it comes to his name.  I mean come on!  "Robot"???  The Robinson family was supposed to be a bunch of geniuses, and Robot is the best they could come up with?  OK, offcially, his name is "Robot B9", but "B9" is NEVER used after the first show.  And let's face it, Will Robinson would have been dead a hundred planets ago if it wasn't for the Robot saving his butt by yelling "Danger Will Robinson!!" and waving those weird pincer arms back and forth.  If you have watched the original pilot of Lost in Space, you know that the robot started out as a kill 'bot programmed by Dr. Smith to kill the Robinson family.  However, after Robot failed in his mission, he was completely reprogrammed by Will Robinson and became a sentient robot and trusted friend.  Robot certainly had his weaknesses - he was constantly losing his power pack at inopportune moments, and he was apparently very easy to disassemble - he literally fell to pieces several times.  However, he was still a really cool late 1960s robot - complete with a big flashing light when he talked, a head piece that had curious spinning and moving doo-dads and, best of all, he could shoot lightning out of his claws!  When I was a kid, I wanted a Robot of my own - and if I couldn't have a Robot, I wanted to *be* Robot...

4. Robby the Robot - Robby is the quintessential movie and TV robot.  His first appearance in the pivotal 1956 movie, "Forbidden Planet" set a new standard for all movie robots.  For the first time, a robot was truly a character in the movie - not just a mechanical prop or killer machine.  Robby also made appearances in many other movies and TV shows - easily becoming the hardest working robot in Hollywood history.  Occasionally reverting to a mindless machine, but often with a personality.  His resume of appearances would be the envy of most Hollywood actors.  Ranging from 3 episodes of "Twilight Zone", 2 episodes of "Lost in Space", "The Monkees", "Columbo", "The Love Boat", "Earth Girls are Easy" and many others.  Robby was cool because his "head" appeared to be a bunch of weird relays that clicked and clacked when he was thinking.  Unlike the Lost in Space Robot, Robby had hands with fingers and legs instead of treads.  This proved to be a problem in the Twilight Zone episode "Uncle Simon", when he was pushed down the stairs by Uncle Simon's niece Barbara. If all of this is not enough to make you love Robby, remember that he also got to fondle Anne Francis in 1956!

3. R. Daneel Olivaw - Only Dr. Isaac Asimov has earned two entries on this list - and the reality is that several other Asimov robots could easily have been included.  "R" stands for Robot, and like all of the Asimov robots R. Daneel has the Three Laws built into his positronic brain.  R. Daneel Olivaw appears in many Asimov stories, and is apparently the most recurring of all Asimov characters.  He is the first "humaniform" robot, meaning that he looks human.  In the Asimov universe, this was rare, and was actually outlawed on many worlds.   He is also the first robot detective, and he appears in several stories with his human detective partner, Elijah Bailey to solve crimes involving humans and robots.  The robot detective stories were some of the first Asimov stories I ever read - and I was instantly hooked.  They were like Sherlock Holmes stories, but with robots - how could I not love that!  The crimes R. Daneel and Elijah solved were invariably related to the Three Laws, and it was through careful examination of the facts and how they could still fit the Three Laws that the cases were solved.  The stories also often included other humans who were prejudiced against R. Daneel because of his human form.  His partner, Elijah, was, of course, one of the few humans who treated R. Daneel as a person and not with revulsion.  There is a Star Trek Data-like quality to R. Daneel, as he attempts (and often fails) to apply logic to explain the actions of humans.  It was also through R. Daneel Olivaw that Asimov introduced a new "Zeroth Law of Robotics" that states:  "A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm."  This modification allowed robots to act for the greater good, not just the individual, thus avoiding many of the conflicts that would cause a robot's positronic brain to freeze when forced to choose between two different First Law violations.  R. Daneel Olivaw is truly one of the great robot characters in Science Fiction.  

2. Marvin the Paranoid Android - Douglas Adams is one of my all-time favorite authors.  I absolutely love British comedy and science fiction, and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (HHGTTG) is some of the absolute best!  Of course, the books are much better than the 2005 movie, but in my opinion, the star of the movie was the voice of Marvin, who was played by Alan Rickman (Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies, Die Hard, Galaxy Quest)  Who can resist a depressed robot that mutters under his breath great lines like: "Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction, 'cause I don't."  Or this famous line: "And then of course I've got this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side."  Marvin is not really paranoid - that's just the name given to him by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the ex-president of the galaxy and con man.  Marvin is most definitely chronically depressed - and he has often been compared to another great depressed character of literature, Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.   Because of some unfortunate accidents with time-travel, Marvin claims to be three times older than the universe and 50,000 times more intelligent than humans.  And that is the genius of the Marvin character - to him, the most interesting conversation Marvin has ever had was with a coffee machine.

1. Bender - And so, we finally come to my #1 all-time favorite robot.  It is none other than Bender Bending Rodriguez from Futurama.  I'll bet some of you are wondering how, with all the historic and important robots on this list, could I choose a cartoon robot from a silly TV show as my favorite robot.  It is quite simple - Bender is exactly what I would expect a sentient robot from the far future to be.  He drinks, smokes, gambles, cuts down his friends, steals, lies, chases fembots - in short - he acts just like a human!  Isn't that what being sentient is all about?  He actually thinks - not the pseudo intelligence of the typical fictional robot.  He doesn't try to be like a human, or wish he was human, he is simply who he is - Bender!  That is real sentience - the freedom to think whatever you want and be an individual.  Bender tells the world:  "Bite my shiny metal ass!"

So, there you have it - my top 10 list of all-time favorite robots and sentient computers.  There are also MANY honorable mentions that could have been on this list, but were excluded for one or more reasons:

  • R2-D2 - If he's so smart, why can't he talk??  And C-3PO?  The only reason he even had a job was because R2-D2 couldn't talk.
  • Rosie the Jetson's maid - missed the list by only a hair, I'm pretty sure Alice from the Brady Bunch was modeled after Rosie.
  • Robocop - Very cool guy, and that gun is awesome, but having a human brain is cheating.
  • Data - Poor Brent Spiner, I almost included Data only because I feel sorry for him.  Robots do not get crowsfeet around the eyes.
  • Mechagodzilla - Any robot that can shoot missiles out of his fingers is pretty cool - but unfortunately, Mechagodzilla was not sentient, he was run by remote control by the aliens from the 3rd planet of the black hole.
  • Frankenstein Jr. - An excellent 60s Hanna-Barbara cartoon, with great voice work - but it seems pretty silly to create a 30 foot tall robot that looks like Frankenstein, and then feel the need to give it a secret identity and a mask.
  • Cylon Centurions - The original shiny metal Battlestar Galactica Cylon Centurions with the oscillating red eye were very cool - but I could never figure out why they were needed - the battles took place in space and the ships were always blown into a million pieces - why did they need armored battle droids?  They were also barely sentient - they were dumber than a box of rocks.
  • Daleks - The Daleks of Dr. Who were actually cyborgs, not robots.  As with Robocop, having an organic brain is cheating.

The incredible variety of stories, films and TV shows that include robots proves that humans are fascinated by the concept of artificial life.  Yes, many of them are the simple killbot of the "technology run amok" genre - but not all of them are so simplistic.  There are plenty of examples of robots with real personalities.  Those are the robots I prefer - it's the difference between the robot simply being a prop and actually becoming a character within the story.  And so, to all my electronic and mechanical friends, I salute you!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Corporate Role: Henchman, Evil Sidekick

I often place people I meet into stereotypical fictional roles.  Many fictional authors keep their characters in these roles because it is very easy for the readers to identify the role and build out the rest of the character's personality in their minds without requiring the author to explain why the character made every decision or took every action.  If a character is identified as the evil stepmother, then it's no surprise to anyone that she hates the beautiful stepdaughter.  Of course, the real world is not supposed to work this way.  Real people are all complex beings capable of a wide range of thought, action and personality.  Or are they?

My own character seems to shift - some days I'm the noble but generally ineffective Tonto from the Lone Ranger, sometimes I'm the well-meaning but bumbling Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes and other days I am definitely a "Red Shirt" on a Star Trek Away Team waiting to be blasted to smithereens or turned into a block of salt by an alien.  I'm rarely the Hero or the Villain - generally I'm a supporting member of the cast.  In the past, being the trusty sidekick has generally been a good gig - yeah, I get knocked on the head or shot in the leg, but usually, I'm soon ready for the next adventure - and it's much better to be a sidekick than a faceless member of the crowd or an evil henchman.  As the baby mastodon living under Fred Flintstone's sink would say, "it's a living."

However, I have recently run into people in the workplace that are most definitely occupying the role of Evil Sidekick - and they seem to be doing it with glee and gusto - and they are thriving in their villainous role.  These folks are not just aggressive personalities or bullies - they really do believe they need to hold everyone around them down, destroy anyone who disagrees with them and that any aggressive action they take against co-workers is justified and sanctioned by their bosses.

I find this perplexing.  We live in an age of political correctness, corp-speak and brand protection uber alles - and yet - corporate leaders allow and encourage the Evil Sidekick to disrupt business processes, sabotage projects, assassinate peers and work completely outside the "open and honest" communication channels that the rest of the employees are required to follow.  Why?  The typical answer whispered in closed door discussions when the Evil Sidekick is not around is:  "because the CEO/President/C-level VP likes him and wants him to question and challenge the status quo."  Hmm - I have many problems with this explanation.
  1. Why does the current corporate culture require an Evil Sidekick to question and challenge the status quo?  In a healthy organization, shouldn't ANY employee be able to challenge the current processes?
  2. Since the Evil Sidekick disrupts and destroys all ideas and processes he does not control, how do you know the results obtained by the Evil Sidekick really are better than a collaborative approach?
  3. Once the Evil Sidekick has destroyed all his peers and demoralized his underlings - then what?  Where does the Evil Sidekick fit in your long-range vision of a successful company?

I want to make it clear that an Evil Sidekick is NOT the same as a Court Jester.  The Court Jester had an important job - he was an advisor to the Crown to prevent the Court from becoming a group of yes-men.  That doesn't mean the Court Jester is allowed to assassinate the rest of the Court - if he tries - then the Court Jester has become the Evil Villain or the Evil Sidekick.

I suppose one reason the CEO/President/VP allows the Evil Sidekick to run unchecked is because the CEO/President/VP is (of course) NEVER the target of the Evil Sidekick.  He/She is Evil, not stupid!  If anyone complains about the Evil Sidekick, the CEO/President/VP just assumes the complainer is a weak whiner.  The fact that at the same time the Evil Sidekick is whispering in the King's ear that the complainer *is* a weak whiner also doesn't hurt.

The Evil Sidekick is poison to a corporation.  In my humble opinion, a smart business leader does not allow the Evil Sidekick to exist in their organization.  No matter how great a superstar you believe them to be, one employee can never produce enough to equal the harm done by tearing down everyone around them.  They are NOT providing healthy, constructive debate - they are simply jerks.  Excise them from the organization like the cancerous tumor they are!