By Rishad Tobaccowala

Decades ago, the Book of the Month Club would offer several free options marketed as an extraordinary value. If you signed up now, you’d get hundreds of dollars of books for free.

This is how 11 volumes of “The Story of Civilization” by Ariel and Will Durant ended up in my father’s library in Bombay, India (now renamed Mumbai).

Before computers, before television, before the Internet, before even radio programming – which was very limited at that time – books were the best technology in India.

One key concept resonates decades later from “The Story of Civilization”:

Every advance in technology places a premium on superior ability.

During those early years I was also doing a deep dive in Mathematics, willed upon me by my parents who suggested that my passion to be a writer could wait until I had something worthwhile to say. Until then I needed to learn how to think.

In my final year at the University of Bombay I took eight courses – each in math. There were the regular ones such as Calculus and Statistics, but also truly exotic ones like Mechanics. I do not recall much of anything of those subjects, but one concept stood out in Mechanics: Leverage.

Leverage matters.

Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I’ll move the world.” This expresses the power of leverage, which, at least figuratively, moves the world. Archimedes realized that to accomplish the same amount or work, one could make a trade-off between force and distance using a lever. 

Technology is leverage.

As technology is widely distributed it helps individuals as much as institutions.

A bow and arrow are leverage against those who do not have weapons. Of course, sooner or later everyone will have some kind of armament. But a great archer can use a bow and arrow to create great distance between herself and those less talented.

Every advance in technology places a premium on superior ability.

Today there are marvelous breakthroughs in technology with generative AI technologies like ChatGPT or Lensa.

Experiment and sample them all, but remember that the typewriter did not write “A Farewell to Arms” – Hemingway did.

If I had a word processor and ChatGPT, and Hemingway had a pen, he would still write better than I. If Hemingway also had ChatGPT the distance between us would be even wider. And Hemingway with a Substack would have scaled amazingly better than most.

It is not the technology, it is the talent.

Today streaming and the Internet makes one of the most popular courses at Harvard on Justice or Happiness at Yale available to everybody for free. It is not the marvels of the Internet, streaming and more that make these courses great. It is the talent of professors Laurie Santos and Michael Sandel.

Talent has scaled globally using technology like a lever. So, we should worry less about how AI will replace us but how we will leverage AI to scale ourselves, our teams and companies.

Five ways to thrive.

Here are five things we may all want to consider as we move into a new AI age.

  1.  Embrace technology: Those who embraced the fire and the wheel lived longer and were more successful than those who did not. Learn, invest, and experiment with technology. If one company has world class talent, but does not embrace technology, a good company with a talent for technology will likely end up doing better. The photograph, “Theatre D’Opera Spatial” by Jason M. Allen, recently won a photography award. It was created using the AI tool Midjourney. In many ways these new tools are the Photoshops of today.
  2. Invest in learning: The problem with technology is that it has a shorter half-life and a faster pace for advancement. Moore’s law saw chip technology double in capacity every 18 months, but today AI progresses twice as fast.  Be wary of people constantly speaking about the “good old days.” The best days are ahead, but require constant learning.
  3. The future is carbon and digital: We are increasingly moving into a digital, data-driven, silicon-based future, but when everyone has tech, the differentiating edge will be analog, feeling, carbon-based people – whether it is talent or consumers or clients. Combining the two will be key. Art plus Science. Math plus Meaning. The Story and the Spreadsheet.
  4. Fixate on talent: Talent is job one, two and three for all companies. Companies that win will be better at attracting, retaining, and upgrading talent that can collaborate, co-exist, and combine skills with AI. Finance will matter. Technology will matter. Logistics will matter. But people are everything. The best companies recognize that people are the differentiator and as technology scales talent will be the key. Machines greatly magnify the impact of talent who work in synergy with computers. In the future, this will be most of the jobs.
  5. Hone your talent: Every human is talented. The key is to discover what we excel at and find ways to hone our craft and skill in ways that can be enhanced with technology. This requires continued practice, re-learning and re-imagining our work and how we will work.