Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The lesson AI must learn from nature

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What’s the difference between a café and a restaurant? It’s not as simple as it seems. Yes, the food at a restaurant will be fancier and more substantial. But there is a social distinction too: a restaurant places you under an obligation; a café does not.

When you enter a café you order something out of courtesy – but it can be as insubstantial as a cup of tea. How long you stay, and what you choose to eat or drink, remains up to you. A café, as Nassim Taleb would say, is ‘high in optionality’. By contrast, entering a restaurant is like missing the Wrotham exit on the westbound M26 – you’re stuck there for ages with no chance of escape. Once you sit down in a restaurant, you’re in for at least two courses and a bottle of wine.

Jeff Bezos was insistent that his Amazon colleagues understood the distinction between an option and an obligation. Within Amazon, they still use his phrase ‘a two-way door’, which defines any course of action which can be attempted easily, then quickly reversed in the event of failure. Unlike a ‘one-way door’ (a restaurant), which demands a great deal of research and deliberation beforehand, a ‘two-way door’ (or café) is something which may be cheaper to try than to argue about. There is no point preparing an intricate business plan for something which can be tested in the real world and corrected on the fly.

In ten years we have gone from taxis not accepting cards to shops which won’t accept cash

But I think there is also a third kind of door which is emerging in technology adoption. This starts as a two-way door but then maddeningly slams shut, leaving everyone trapped on the wrong side.

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