Beautiful business conversations with Menno van Doorn Sogeti

Menno van Doorn is Director of the Sogeti Research Institute for the Analysis of New Technology (VINT). Menno shares his views on emerging technologies, Facebook anxiety, Robotic optimism, ‘machinefulness’, how AI might save us from ourselves, self driving transportation, why we need an approach to technological design that is beautiful creating happiness. Centre stage is our humanity.

Menno’s observation of our conversation, Alan is working on “Crafting Beautiful Businesses” and I’m engaged in “Digital Happiness”, our new research theme. It was obvious this wasn’t going to be an easy talk. But who needs easy talks in a bizarre world where everyone is looking at “What’s Next” and “How do we get there”? Alan started asking about the importance of memes, the way new ideas spread into our culture. Words matter. A popular word in the digital space is “Alternative Facts” and a rising star is “The Frightful Five” (referring to the 5 big tech companies like Google). There is a growing unease with everything being digitized, spread, managed and controlled.

The important question is, what are the design principles for the artificially intelligent world? What are the robots going to do? The simple answer is: Making us happy. We can program them in such a way that they improves our wellbeing, joy, and purpose in life (aka happiness). Design principles are emerging in a new scientific field called Positive Computing. We have only scratched the surface of the digital world. Like many other technologies, digital technology started ugly. The side effects of living a digital life are becoming more clear. We need safety belts, deal with the digital exhaust and introduce speed limits as we did with the car. Even better: we need self driving cars we can trust.

Conversations about Beauty – Menno van Doorn from Alan Moore on Vimeo.


I am in Amsterdam and I am with Menno van-Doorn, the Director of the Sogetti Research Institute for the Analysis of New Technology, otherwise known as VINCE. Menno thanks for coming along, great to see you. We were talking just a little bit earlier about facebook and I am obviously of the opinion that we have created technologies at the moment which came with some sort of idea of a utopian ideal but It has not quite turned out that way, has it.

M         Facebook is beautiful if you look at it – beautiful people, living beautiful lives for instance

A          But if you dig down a little bit deeper, then there is something else going on isn’t there

M         Exactly, so that is why I am teasing you a little bit because you are pushing beauty and I am pushing happiness and I think impression and expression. So the expression of beauty on Facebook can give you a bad impression, because these people are more beautiful and have more beautiful lives and they are better and more successful.

A          and that is causing a lot of anxiety for people

M         It does, it does, it does.

A          and that is not particularly healthy for individuals, or societies or communities.

M         No. I just read a brilliant book Alan called from Big Bang to Burn Out, written by the head of psychiatry at a university here and his prediction is that from these anxieties, from these nudges and things, more beautiful people on Facebook, the new generation will have more depression that the generations before, which is not a very good thing.

A          It is not at all

M         No, so we need to do something about it. Like we did something when the car came, there was some corrections, it wasn’t beautiful in the beginning.

A          and we are still on that journey really when we are thinking about transportation, automation and the automation of transportation. Maybe even how artificial intelligence could be a more empowering and useful technology.

M         Yes, I think artificial intelligence again can be both, are doing both. Self driving car, less accidents, thumbs up, great, fantastic, no discussion. It can ruin you life a little bit if you like driving cars, OK, and automation also – put in on Facebook and you can automate the things that drive your life and you will constantly be emerged in what Facebook is putting in your face, which is not a good idea.

A          I am interested in this idea of what is beautiful about digital technology how do we define that if were to start building up around a set of principles and actually is the outcome of that happiness

M         I would say that I am very optimistic about artificial intelligence, so I think it will bring great joy, beauty, happiness, whatever, into the world because we are able to design those things and we are capable of designing better things. So you were asking me what is your hope, or whatever, robots – that’s my hope. It think robots will set the standard of politeness and happiness and beauty.

A          People are very worried about this idea of what is called general artificial intelligence which is actually these machines become more knowing they can write their own code, rewrite their own code, they can look at the world as conscious beings, but you said something interesting about the difference between say an artificial intelligence, however that is manifested, and what we are as human beings.

M         I talked with you about machine fulness, if you google the word it actually exists. But that is what machines can do they can be very machineful in the things that they do. Drive a car and make no accidents, because they are constantly looking on the road there is no distractions while we are thinking about the quarrel we had with our wives or spouses, the children going to school, whatever, the coffee you spilt on your trousers and then there is an accident. Then you kill a golden retriever, or whatever, it is human, that’s us. So the general artificial intelligence, there is also a general human stupidity and that is ubiquitous so the future of ground to grown on artificial intelligence is people constantly making mistakes.

A          So it is the ability to protect ourselves from ourselves in some respects. In the same way that let’s say the constitution or a democratic set of rules are there to protect ourselves from ourselves. I am absolutely a believer that humanity is 51% good and 49% bad and there is that eternal struggle and any mechanism that allows us to err on the better side of our good side has got to be a good thing, because it is an eternal struggle.

M         It is, and I think, I am curious to know what your answer would be so I think in this whole thing that is going on the ultimate question will be where is the autonomy of people, so if it is true that we can create everything that we want now, the social desirability is the number one question about technology today, we make mistakes, so do we get a world where robots will correct you in a polite way or nudge you with an idea or will they take over control and you loose autonomy and then you loose yourself, or humanity, I think that is the main question for me at the moment.

A          Lets return to this idea of the language of beauty. If we were to use a language that somehow frameworks the creation – the making of new technologies, new services, new products, whatever they may be, what type of language are we talking about Menno.

M         Well we are both on the same side I would say so you are words are beauty and you push beauty and we started pushing happiness. I am hopeful, and I think it works, we have a good experience from the last year, when we took the word and we took the ideas to the board rooms of organisations and we are just back from the US and organised a huge conference on digital happiness. There were 80 executives in the room and they were willing to come, they were engaging in conversations, they were coming up with new ideas, so I think spreading the word about happiness and spreading the word about beauty starts spinning off new ideas in the board room. Otherwise they wouldn’t have come. I think these meaning words and also seeing from each other that this is a good idea to discuss and what can new concepts like digital happiness bring my organisation is a very good starting point. But as you said before it is nascent it is coming, we are trend watching, trying to find words for the things that are coming and digital happiness is the one that we chose.

A          So tell me what is your world of happiness look like in 2050.

M         I am from ’64 can you help me? It is 86. My father is 83 and he is happy I would say together with my mother, fully engaged in new technology by the way, and I see that it brings value and purpose to his life, so I am convinced digital will still bring happiness and purpose to my life

A          Menno, thank you very much

M         Thank you Alan.

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