Time is a Flat Circle

Jamie Dimon’s Comments on AI Just Proved It

Time is a Flat Circle

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton


“Time is a flat circle.  Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over and over again – forever.” –- Rusty Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, in True Detective

For the whole of human existence, we have created new things with no idea if, when, or how they will affect humanity, society, or business.  New things can be a distraction, sucking up time and money and offering nothing in return.  Or they can be a bridge to a better future.

As a leader, it’s your job to figure out which things are a bridge (i.e., innovation) and which things suck (i.e., shiny objects).

Innovation is a flat circle

The concept of eternal recurrence, that time repeats itself in an infinite loop, was first taught by Pythagoras (of Pythagorean theorem fame) in the 6th century BC. It remerged (thereby proving its own truth) in Friedreich Nietzsche’s writings in the 19th century, then again in 2014’s first season of True Detective, and then again on Monday in Jamie Dimon’s Annual Letter to Shareholders.

Mr. Dimon, the CEO and Chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co, first mentioned AI in his 2017 Letter to Shareholders.  So, it wasn’t the mention of AI that was newsworthy. It was how it was mentioned.  Before mentioning geopolitical risks, regulatory issues, or the recent acquisition of First Republic, Mr. Dimon spends nine paragraphs talking about AI, its impact on banking, and how JPMorgan Chase is responding.

Here’s a screenshot of the first two paragraphs:

JP Morgan Annual Letter 2017

He’s right. We don’t know “the full effect or the precise rate at which AI will change our business—or how it will affect society at large.” We were similarly clueless in 1436 (when the printing press was invented), 1712 (when the first commercially successful steam engine was invented), 1882 (when electricity was first commercially distributed), and 1993 (when the World Wide Web was released to the public).

Innovation, it seems, is also a flat circle.

Our response doesn’t have to be.

Historically, people responded to innovation in one of two ways: panic because it’s a sign of the apocalypse or rejoice because it will be our salvation. And those reactions aren’t confined to just “transformational” innovations.  In 2015, a visiting professor at Kings College London declared that the humble eraser (1770) was “an instrument of the devil” because it creates “a culture of shame about error.  It’s a way of lying to the world, which says, ‘I didn’t make a mistake.  I got it right the first time.’”

Neither reaction is true. Fortunately, as time passes, more people recognize that the truth is somewhere between the apocalypse and salvation and that we can influence what that “between” place is through intentional experimentation and learning.

JPMorgan started experimenting with AI over a decade ago, well before most of its competitors.  As a result, they “now have over 400 use cases in production in areas such as marketing, fraud, and risk” that are producing quantifiable financial value for the company. 

It’s not just JPMorgan.  Organizations as varied as John Deere, BMW, Amazon, the US Department of Energy, Vanguard, and Johns Hopkins Hospital have been experimenting with AI for years, trying to understand if and how it could improve their operations and enable them to serve customers better.  Some experiments worked.  Some didn’t.  But every company brave enough to try learned something and, as a result, got smarter and more confident about “the full effect or the precise rate at which AI will change our business.”

You have free will.  Use it to learn.

Cynics believe that time is a flat circle.  Leaders believe it is an ever-ascending spiral, one in which we can learn, evolve, and influence what’s next.  They also have the courage to act on (and invest in) that belief.

What do you believe?  More importantly, what are you doing about it?

Image credit: Pixabay

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