I was finally going to finish the project. To find out how many of the 500 loan applicants were creditworthy. It was a data analytics project to build a model that could predict worthiness of a loan applicant. The model, when tested against previous data had an accuracy of 80%. Great, let’s run it!
I exported the results, drafted my report and listed the names of the applicants who were “Not creditworthy.” Their loan application would be denied. Their dreams crushed. Hopes shattered. They were not worthy of getting a loan that could have changed their lives. They would never even get a chance to know if they could succeed or not. But that wasn’t my problem and it certainly wasn’t the banks. But something wasn’t right about this. I’m usually exuberant when I get over a challenge and hand in the final report. But this time I had a feeling that I made a mistake somewhere. Did I miss a predictor variable? Had I forgotten to take a statistically significant correlation between two variables into consideration? Have I made a colossal mistake that might end in innocent people losing their loans? Was my algorithm wrong? As I laid in bed that night, I started thinking about my childhood. As the memories of my grandfather and conversations with him came flooding back, I realized why I was wrong. I forgot to factor in the most critical predictor variable of them all. Human GRIT!
My memories took me back to the summer of 1998. Just as any other summer during my school years, I traveled back from Mangalore, the town I was studying in, to go to my hometown Sullia, around 100 kilometers away. My grandfather, who I was more close to than my own parents, would always pick me up and drive me home. In fact, whenever my bus pulled up to the station, i would see his white Maruti 800 parked and him standing outside, dressed in all white as usual, casually chatting with the passers-by’s. The whole town adored him. Always a stickler for punctuality, I knew he would have arrived 10 minutes earlier than when my bus was scheduled to reach the town, even though he knew the bus would always be at least 45 minutes late as is common in India. Essentially, he would be standing there for almost an hour more excited than ever to see his grandson. Thus would begin my 2 months of unlimited learning from the greatest teacher, humblest man, kindest human and the most successful person I had the pleasure of knowing.
It was in this summer that i got to know the story of how he got started. The stepping stone to all his success. On one Sunday evening, his day off from his saree store, he had a visitor. I was playing outside and could hear the commotion and chaos that this uninvited guest had caused. The best cutlery was brought out, the maid was hurried to stealthily run from the back entrance to the store nearby to bring sweets and snacks, a phenomenon I had noticed on several occasions when unexpected guests arrived. My grandmother was flustered and running a list of things she could prepare in time so as to not disappoint this guest. Must be someone special I thought. When I was called in to meet the guest I immediately recognized him. He was someone I had met with my grandfather just a week ago at his office. He was the manager of one of the local banks. I had seen this happen before. On a typical day, one of my grandfather’s employee would go deposit the previous day’s sales in the bank. But once every week or two, my grandfather would go to the bank himself, stand in line and deposit the cash. I accompanied him on several such occasions. I couldn’t understand why we had to walk to the bank and stand in line when someone else could do this job. Before returning, we would always stop by the manager’s office, sit down and chat over chai and biscuits. Over time I realized that the trips to the bank were less about bank duties, but rather an occasion to talk to the manager. And This would happen again at a different bank with a different manager. We would finish up at one bank and go to the next. More chai. More conversation. This was networking and relationship building at its finest. This man could have written a book on it, and it would be more valuable than any textbook the school had me reading. On the way back home that evening I asked him why we did this every other week. We weren’t there to ask for money, the manager wasn’t known or special in any sense. His answer stunned me. Many many years ago when he was starting out with nothing, it was a bank manager just like the ones we met that gave him a break he needed and made all his success possible.
Unlike me, my grandfather did not have the luxury of being chaperoned around. Instead, he had to leave home at far too early an age to try and make it on his own. There was no one to ask for help, to rely on or to go to if things went south. But it didn’t scare him. He worked his way through odd jobs before ending up in a tailoring shop. That’s where his love for textiles began. He knew right then and there that one day he would own a successful clothing store. His determination relentless, his ambition interminable and his passion infectious, he set out. With some support from his family and friends, he knew he needed a bank loan if he was to make his dream a reality, but it wasn’t going to be easy. How was he going to convince a bank to lend him money? He had no assets and no real guarantee that he could pay the money back, so why in god’s name would they agree? If it were today he would have been laughed out of the building. The bank’s algorithm would look through his application and reject him in a millisecond. Back then though, a human was in charge. A human with feelings and emotions and the capability to look at this young, ambitious man in front of him and judge his character. Even though all evidence pointed to the contrary and the papers said no, the manager could not ignore that young man’s burning desire to succeed. His grit and his ambition would take him further than anyone else with better circumstances. And against better judgment, the manager granted the loan. The young man went on to become not only one of the most successful businessmen in that town, but he helped and transformed the lives countless people and was one of the most prominent figures in his generation. And all because someone recognized his grit.
And that’s what was bothering me. No algorithm has a ‘grit’ variable. There’s no scale to measure one’s ambition and have it influence the result. The algorithm cannot look at the person and see that his drive will make him successful. You could argue that neither can a person, at least accurately, but who would you bet your chances on?And that’s what was wrong with my calculation. It was worthless cos the most fundamental human attribute was not taken into consideration. Somewhere along the journey of shifting from a humanistic to a data-driven society, we have forgotten that we can’t measure all the attributes of a human. That’s what makes us such complicated creatures. Sure, Google and Amazon may predict what you might like to read or which product you might want to buy, which video you would want to watch and song you would like, but an algorithm can’t predict or understand that desperation, or the right motivation can make a person achieve unfathomable feats. There are instances when a mother under extraordinary circumstances has been known to lift a car to save her child. Two athletes may have the same built, training and diet, but one with higher mental capacity, grit, and endurance to pain can outperform the other. It’s not physiological but psychological. And we can’t program that into an algorithm, yet.
I believe we are in this weird space where data-driven decision making is ubiquitous, but it lacks the insights into fundamental human attributes like willpower, and hence the results are sometimes skewed. There might come a time when AI can accurately predict a Humans ability by just looking at the person, but until then I wouldn’t rely on algorithms to tell the worth of a human.
For me though, it’s time to move on to the next project. AI, you might be winning, but that does not mean you are right all the time. Never underestimate GRIT.