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Navigating AI's Impact

Alistair Cockburn shares his insights on the profound impact of AI on the Agile community and beyond. Together with Aino Vonge Corry they reflect on the history and evolution of Agile, contrasts AI's transformative power with past technologies, and expresses concerns about AI's potential to disrupt various professions. He emphasizes his role as a "Bard" rather than a futurist, focusing on current trends and practices around the world. The conversation also touches on Denmark's resilience in the global recession, highlighting the unique societal perspectives that contribute to happiness in Scandinavian countries.

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About the experts

Aino Vonge Corry
Aino Vonge Corry ( expert )

Author of "Retrospectives Antipatterns"

Alistair Cockburn
Alistair Cockburn ( interviewer )

One of the “All-Time Top 150 i-Technology Heroes”

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The Intersection of Agile and AI

Aino Vonge Corry: Hi, Alistair.

Alistair Cockburn: Hi, Aino.

Aino Vonge Corry: It's great to see you again here at GOTO Aarhus 2024. I've been seeing you at these conferences for two decades.

Alistair Cockburn: I know. I love this place. And it used to be called Yahoo Conference.I was here the day after 9/11. I was in Copenhagen the day it hit. And I was flying here. And they decided to have the conference here. So I have memories. And we did a run. We did a little running race. Good memories.

Aino Vonge Corry: Yeah. It's great to have you back.

Alistair Cockburn: Thank you.

Aino Vonge Corry: You always have something interesting, and sometimes a bit provoking to say. So, this time, I was expecting, since this is an agile conference, that you will be talking about what's going on in the agile world right now. Because you're one of the, pardon my French, oldies but goodies, right? You've been there since the start. And then you start talking about AI. Why?

Alistair Cockburn: Because AI is affecting every part of everybody's life. And it affects the agile world as much as anything else. It affects the programmers. It affects the scrum masters. It affects the managers. It affects the product owners. So AI, if I rolled back maybe a year or something, I said, crypto is basically a scam, it's going to go away. But AI is literally going to change the world. I feel like it's the beginning of the internet with AI.

Aino Vonge Corry: I have the same feeling. I remember not quite the beginning of the internet, but also when Google came. That was also life changing in many ways, right? And this is the same, just on steroids. And what I'm wondering is, because you came up with some really good use cases of AI and some experiences. What are you worried about? Because you don't seem very worried.

Alistair Cockburn: I'm terrified. I just hide. I'm terrified.

Recommended talk: From Heart of Agile to Guest Leadership • Alistair Cockburn • GOTO 2017

Hopes and Realities of AI's Future

Aino Vonge Corry: What are you terrified about?

Alistair Cockburn: I'll tell you what I'm terrified of. And it's a report from a radiologist. And it's a woman from India, who got a very demanding degree in examining X-rays and doing radiology stuff. And she managed to get out of India, she sent money back to her country. And they found that the AI could do most of her job. So she could, you know, lose her job and go back to India. There's a whole set of professions that... So in my talk, I talked about, it's a power tool for the people who know what they're doing. So the people who are good programmers, they're doubled productivity, it's a times productivity. So they now can outproduce their junior colleagues by enormous margins. So if we take that to certain fields, there's certain categories of people who are just going to be redundant. And the thing is, as many people have commented, we have always wished for robots who would wash our dishes and vacuum the carpet, so that we could focus on painting and poetry. And now the robots are doing the painting and poetry, and we're stuck washing the dishes and vacuuming the carpet.

So for me, that is terrifying. But it's a fact. And the other thing I wanted to say is, I follow Grady Booch. Smart guy, IBM fellow, working in the AI field. And he keeps saying, it's not the magic, you know, thing that you're looking for, it's not automated general intelligence. It's only doing copy paste. But that copy paste is doing a lot of people a lot of good. So I think it'll be like Excel, right? And I know people who use it, they just go to ChatGPT, and they do things like we do in Excel or with a Google search. And it's speeding them up a lot. So the scary part for me is that, we wanted someone to clean a house so we could do the painting, but it's doing the painting and we're cleaning the house. That's part of the part that scares me.

Aino Vonge Corry: What is it that you hope will happen? 

Alistair Cockburn: Well, I don't predict the future. My investment record financially is terrible. I thought it was a bad idea to write the Agile Manifesto. So I just don't go into the future. No, what I do is I go around the world, and I find out what people are doing. And then I tell other people what people are doing. So, someone wrote that they were a presentologist not a futurologist. So I'm more of a presentologist. I tell people what's happening now.

Aino Vonge Corry: Like a cross pollinator?

Alistair Cockburn: Cross pollinator. Actually, if I could, I'm a Bard. And I say Bard, for those who know, in the olden days, like, we're talking medieval times or Greek times. What did the Bards do in the olden days? Well, they'd go from town to town, and they would tell the stories of the olden times, the gods and the heroes. And they would tell people what was happening in other villages, what the fashions... That's exactly what I do. I tell people, in the 90s, before agile, we built agile because we were looking at this, dah, dah, dah. And this is what these people were doing in the olden days. And I tell people what the heroes were doing, dah, dah, dah, dah. So I do that. And then I say, and I just saw in Australia, this, and I just saw in Vienna, this. So I cross pollinate. So truly, in that sense, I'm a Bard. And I'm not going to predict the future.

Aino Vonge Corry: That's sad. I thought you would.

Alistair Cockburn: I know my limits.

Recommended talk: The Importance of Laughter • Aino Vonge Corry • GOTO 2022

Denmark’s Resilience

Aino Vonge Corry: Do you have any questions for me?

Alistair Cockburn: No, you're in Denmark, and I don't... The economy's down right now everywhere. Agile is down. Employment, I think we've got a recession. We've got...the post COVID still hasn't come up. Remote's done a bunch of damage. We've got of course, the war in Ukraine that's sucking up all the supply chains and all the supplies. So we really have a global recession. And so I would just ask you, because I don't know, in Denmark, are there other pockets of strength? Or is it seeing something up? Or is it just the same as the rest of the world?

Aino Vonge Corry: Well, that's actually a very good question, because I have been talking to a lot of my friends around the world. And they all say there's a recession. People are getting laid off. I don't see it as much in Denmark. And I think that a company like Novo Nordisk is actually keeping Denmark up financially at the moment. So I think that's part of it. So there are sort of pockets of things that we can still use in Denmark. We're not drying out as quickly right now. But I think it's thanks to some of those big companies.

Alistair Cockburn: So I have a thing I want to say. Is this going to be mostly a Danish audience?

Aino Vonge Corry: Yes.

Alistair Cockburn: Good. So there's something I'd like to tell you that I saw on TV, and I'm going to... Because I'm speaking to buy Danish friends. I love Denmark. I love Scandinavia. So, there was an American journalist. And I don't know if they do this on purpose that they ask the stupid questions because they're stupid, or because they're humoring their constituency back home, who really have no clue. So he comes to Denmark, and he's interviewing people in Denmark, and says, "So Denmark is supposed to be, like, the happiest country in the world, right? Where the people are the happiest." And they say, "You know, why are you so happy?" And person after person, they say, "Well, it's quite nice here. You know, I mean, I have food, and I have friends, and so on." "Yes. But you don't have this, and you're not the most of this, and the great..." "No, that's all right." "You know, it's kind of as, you're happy because you don't have huge, great goals." "Yeah, that's about right. Yeah. You know, I mean, I like where I live. And I have some friends and foods, and I like..." And so it was fascinating to me that the reporter truthfully, or because he was role playing, this American, like, we must have more, couldn't understand that, yeah, actually, it's pretty good, huh? Wouldn't you say? Yeah, okay. I'm happy. Done.

Aino Vonge Corry: I think that's also what I say when people ask me, why are you the happiest people in the world? And actually, the Finnish people have overtaken us, but let's not go there. I say it's because we have very low expectations.

Alistair Cockburn: It's fine.

Aino Vonge Corry: If you have low expectations, you are easily made happy.

Alistair Cockburn: You have friends, you have food, like, it's pretty good, huh?

Aino Vonge Corry: It's pretty good.

Alistair Cockburn: Anyway, so I wanted to shout out to the Danes for the lovely answer. Like, yeah, it's pretty good. Yeah.

Aino Vonge Corry: Actually, particularly here in Jutland, part of Denmark, they say, "It could be worse." And that's considered good.

Alistair Cockburn: I borrow from this because I focus for happiness on every little thing. Like, I sat out in the sunlight for five minutes today. It was awesome. Or you get a good dinner with somebody. It is just tremendous. All of those little good things. So I am carrying back to...as a Bard, carrying back to my Danish friends, this piece of Denmark that comes around and congratulations to everybody who has that view. Anything else?

Aino Vonge Corry: No, I think that's it.

Alistair Cockburn: Super.

Aino Vonge Corry: Thank you very much.

Alistair Cockburn: Thank you very much.