Case Study

Looking for the Elephant in the Room

21 Jul 2020
Manuel Perez Prada

Looking for the Elephant in the Room

A lot of companies can compares their team’s work to the Indian parable of blind men investigating an elephant: Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant body … but their descriptions are in complete disagreement on what an elephant is.

Despite initial disagreement, if the people in the parable are given enough time they can share enough information to piece together a pretty accurate collective picture of an elephant.

The parable describes the problem that a lot team’s are solving in the AI area. Deep learning is a widely used AI method to help computers understand and extract meaning from images and sounds through which humans experience much of the world.

In other words, software helps computers help people recognize the elephants in front of them.


Blind men and elephants


Hillery Hunter (an IBM Fellow, and a Director for Accelerated Cognitive Infrastructure in IBM Research) presents another aspect of her work to which the elephant parable is equally relevant: teamwork and scientific breakthroughs. She describes her collaborative teams as, “Taking what were historically disjointed technical areas and breaking down those barriers so we can get better solutions.”

When asked to share practical advice for breaking down barriers, she replies, “I encourage folks to work to understand the language and the problems of your collaborators.” She recommends first investigating collaborators’ fields by reading technical literature, finding videos of respected speakers and even taking online courses.

Once collaborators are using the same language to talk about—for example—an elephant, “I try to get people talking about the things they consider to be the hard problems.” If you can apply your team’s experience and perspective to your collaborators’ most pressing problems, Hillery says, you’ll often find you can quickly provide value in the collaboration, which builds trust.

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