“The factory of the future may be run by just one man and one dog. The man’s job will be to feed the dog,” says MIT Sloan Professor Erik Brynjolfsson. “And the dog’s job will be to make sure the man doesn’t touch any of the controls.” Brynjolfsson was only half joking when he addressed the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in May. After all, an increasing number of industries have become almost entirely automated—commercial jets, for example.
Singapore has been testing driverless cars, a pilot program that has been a success so far. In fact, the nation’s transportation planners envision a driverless version of Uber. An executive from Singapore’s Ministry of Transport told an audience at The Road Ahead forum at MIT in November that the country is exploring whether autonomous vehicles could reduce congestion and refocus the city around walking, bicycling, and public transit.
But it’s not just technical functions that are going robotic. Robbie Allen, SDM ’06, CEO of Automated Insights, told CIO symposium-goers that his company’s Wordsmith product was used to write approximately one billion news stories last year. The software crafts data like sports scores and earnings reports into readable prose. Some were run on Associated Press newswires with no editing by human beings.
The inability to adapt to a rapidly changing competitive landscape has doomed many seemingly unstoppable business giants, observes Eric Jones, SF ’05, executive assistant to the Coast Guard’s Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Admiral Charles Michel.
“Sustaining the effectiveness and agility of a large enterprise is a continuous challenge in any realm,” Jones says, “but a large government organization like the U.S. Coast Guard faces additional hurdles.” While most mariners hope they never need the help of the Coast Guard, he notes, “We must be prepared to perform to our full capabilities at any time of day and every day of the year in unpredictable, and often perilous, conditions.” And that’s before taking into account the continual external forces at play, like terrorism, transnational organized crime networks, climate change, the fossil fuel renaissance, and the need for greater maritime governance because of an expansion in global trade.
Patricia Winand, SF ’13, Senior VP of Sales & Marketing, Americas at Close the Loop, first started ruminating about loops when she studied system dynamics (SD) as an MIT Sloan Fellow. “For me, SD was love at first sight because I am a very spatial person, and my brain responds best to visual stimuli. The graphic explanation of a complex problem makes it so clear.”
The beauty of system dynamics, Winand says, is that it is a wise combination of simplicity and analytical power. But although she enjoyed learning the technique, she wasn’t sure she knew how she might use the tool in the real world. “The professor who taught the course was a master at the subject, but my million-dollar question was: how can a mere mortal do it?”
After graduation, Winand realized that, indeed, system dynamics could be second nature. She found that the course had changed her mindset and that she was using SD automatically when analyzing problems and identifying their root causes. Then she joined an Australian-based company called Close The Loop (CtL), which seemed like kismet, given that it was all about loops—in this case, the recycling loop. CtL turns used printer cartridges into other products.