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CEO Daily: The Best in Business Reading

Good Morning.

The rise of artificial intelligence is unquestionably one of the most important continuing stories for business and society. The ability of software to crunch massive quantities of data and learn to “think” for itself has countless implications. Among the most fascinating areas are those in which AI is increasingly being applied to human qualities. An outstanding example of that is “Where Does The Algorithm See You In 10 Years?” in Fortune. It explores how companies such as Google, Citigroup, FedEx, Adidas, and a bevy of startups are using AI in the hiring process. That includes what might be viewed as the obvious applications, such as scraping the Web for every sort of personal and professional reference, but also in subtle uses that mine or assess intangible human qualities. For example, one startup created software that examines video of job interviews. It uses a database built on the work of Paul Ekman, a renowned psychologist who created a taxonomy of the face that reveals all sorts of hidden emotions (there’s a superb 2002 profile of Ekman by Malcolm Gladwell here). The software can look for clues that, perhaps, an applicant’s facial expressions contrast with their words. For example, a job-seeker might tell you he got along great with his old boss, but his face briefly twists into a sneer as he says it—something the software can identify better than a person can—raising questions about whether he’s telling the truth.

That’s both enthralling and a bit chilling, and the article acknowledges that duality: “Can algorithms learn to probe one of the most mysterious of all human endeavors—matching a person to a job—better than actual humans can? And will solving some old problems end up creating new ones?” The answer to both of those questions may end up being yes.

P.S. Speaking of Fortune, I wanted to add one point to Alan Murray’s endorsement of “Riding Shotgun With Travis Kalanick” in this space. As he notes, the excerpt from Adam Lashinsky’s book, Wild Ride, explores Kalanick’s famously pugnacious tendencies. But one thing that Lashinsky captures, which I’ve never seen before in the copious coverage of the Uber CEO, is how wounded he sounds that others view him as an a**hole, to use Kalanick’s own word. Of course, he’s not the first person who can throw a punch better than he can take one (there’s another currently in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave). But those sorts of contradictions are what make people human, and that psychological acuity makes for rich reading.

Is There Life After Disney?

“Disney’s Iger Isn’t About To Let Go As CEO,” in the Wall Street Journal, opens with an enticing anecdote about Robert Iger’s, whose 12-year tenure as CEO has led to questions for years now as to when a successor will be named. Iger used to drive a car with a license-plate frame that read, “Is there life after Disney?” So many people asked him what it meant that he finally removed the frame. How’s that for an anecdote that, in a few short words, takes you to the heart of the matter? The rest of the piece is presented without a lot of adornment or sweeping rhetoric, but as it makes its way through the history of Iger’s highly successful tenure, the slow accumulation of evidence more than supports the headline. It captures the rise and fall of putative successors, including Disney veteran Tom Staggs. I chuckled at the company’s circular reasoning, as captured in this line: “A person close to Mr. Iger says he wanted to retire in 2018 but felt he had to stay longer after the plan for Mr. Staggs to succeed him failed.” Yes, I’d agree that bumping off your successors can result in…a lack of successors. And, as the article points out, there’s always a new business challenge the CEO can point to—ESPN’s woes, most recently—that only he can fix.

Apple’s Ring Takes Form

Wired’s “One More Thing,” a profile of Apple’s $5 billion new headquarters building, might be worth reading just for the following detail: The massive structure is built on shock absorbers, which can move up to 4.5 feet in the event of an earthquake. Okay, then. We’ve read before about how profligate the structure will be, and many have noted that HQs worthy of the Sun King tend to mark the moment when a company flies just a tad too close to that fiery orb. And yet, the scale, the ambition—even the building’s name, the Ring (in honor of its circular shape), conjures Wagnerian grandiosity. Perhaps the finished product won’t rank with the pyramids of Egypt (to shift my metaphor). Yet this story captures that mesmerizing combination of ambition, ego, hubris, beauty, scale, obsessive detail, and cost, which makes it a pleasure to read. All of that captures ancient human impulses; yet it’s also about a specific company in a particular time. “As with any Apple product,” the article notes, “its shape would be determined by its function.”

Nicholas Varchaver