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Human interest

4 June, 2021

These days, it can feel like artificial intelligence is everywhere. But amidst the talk of big data and algorithms, are we in danger of missing another form of intelligence? 

According to a recent article in the Financial Times, yes. It argues that ‘anthropological intelligence’ is a vital and often overlooked tool for solving many of the problems that humans face, from protecting internet users from misinformation to helping software engineers make group decisions. Taking the time to listen deeply and widely to other people, with the diligence and curiosity of an anthropologist studying a remote far-flung community, can help us see beyond the narrow lens of polls and surveys. And this process can throw up surprising insights – like the fact that conspiracy theorists often distrust slick-looking websites – which a pre-determined set of survey questions never would.  

The language of “anthropological intelligence” is a neat way of describing a phenomenon we’ve often observed at Good Business: that by looking at a problem from many angles, you get better information. Our SKY Girls tobacco prevention programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa always begin with deep qualitative research to help us go beyond the statistics of smoking rates and understand the motivations that lead a teenage girl to smoke – whether that’s her desperation to stand out whilst fitting in, or her fear that in a high-pressure situation she won’t be able to stay true to her choices, even if she wants to.  

Understanding the big picture is important, too, and quantitative data can help us do that. But in an increasingly digital world, it’s essential that we don’t forget the people behind the problems.  

By Sarah Howden

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