Kaleidoscope: The Realities of Automation and AI Vary Widely Around the World

This morning, I woke up in Pristina, Kosovo. Europe’s newest and youngest (average age: 28) country, Kosovo has yet to see Uber or BlaBlaCar, much less autonomous vehicles. Instead, I waited a couple minutes on the street, flagged a taxicab, listened to the dispatch en route, and enjoyed a spirited conversation about America’s current woes — notwithstanding that some 60% of people from the region would still like to move there if given the option. I paid in cash (my queries about digital wallets have met with uniformly blank stares). It felt a bit like the days of yesteryear.

Pristina’s Newborn sculpture is a monument to Kosovar independence, grit and youth. The N and W have been knocked down to protest “No Walls”: visa-free travel and access to greater work opportunities. (Photo: April Rinne)

This spring I was in Johannesburg, South Africa. In many ways South Africa drives the African economy; along with Nigeria and Kenya, these three countries are broadly seen as harbingers for the entire continent on a range of issues, from innovation to demographic shifts. South Africa’s current unemployment stands at 27%, with youth unemployment at a staggering 55%. Yet the continent faces a “youth bulge” with the working-age population expected to grow by 450 million people by 2035. In other words: more people, more pressures, yet no clear sign of more jobs.

Soweto, South Africa. Booming entrepreneurship, but systemic roadblocks remain. (Photo: April Rinne)

Last fall, I was in Tokyo, Japan. As has been widely reported, the Japanese are aging to a degree that’s unprecedented in history. If projections play out as expected — and, importantly, if its immigration policy does not dramatically change — Japan’s population will decline from 125 million today to 65 million in 2080. In other words, the world’s third largest economy will have half as many people in less than three generations. Against this backdrop, Japan not only welcomes robots; it desperately needs them. It already has the world’s first 100%-robot-run hotel and is gearing up for the first robot-run farm. The enthusiasm around automation and robotics, without barely a trace of concern for the social implications, is unlike anywhere else I have ever seen.

Tokyo, Japan: experts at technology, but what if the people disappear? (Photo: April Rinne)

Next week, I’ll be in Copenhagen, Denmark. With one of the highest standards of living in the world, the Danes have masterfully created a social welfare system that values community well-being and social ties. Digitization, automation and AI present a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the country is already among the leading “cashless countries” globally, and automation of financial services is widely heralded. On the other hand, the government recently passed some of the most stringent (and arguably backwards-looking) regulations for ride-hailing in existence. According to the recent Digital Evolution Index, the country is at risk of “stalling out” if its future policies do not keep pace with its approach to innovation to date. The Danes are struggling with how to maintain strong social safety nets in a world where those nets are increasingly frayed.

Copenhagen: no automation needed. The human legs work perfectly fine, thank you. (Photo: April Rinne)

After Denmark, I’ll return home to the United States. True, Silicon Valley is where many advances in automation and AI are taking place, yet the Valley’s reality is quite far from the rest of the country. (For context, I was born in San Francisco, have been to all 50 states, and call Portland, Oregon home today.) Articles about how to harness new technologies to “augment, not replace” human labor are in the news daily. Yet for all the talk, there has been little action to implement such objectives. There is an increasing sense that while economic inequality is a serious problem, we also need to tackle the more fundamental concern of access to opportunity. Needless to say, automation and AI will be part of tipping this needle — in either direction.

Kosovo, South Africa, Japan, Denmark, United States: when it comes to automation, AI, the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the future of work, each place has its own reality and its own pace of change. For as fast as new technologies are showing up in Brooklyn or Berlin, they have yet to reach Bolivia or Burkina Faso. And yet, while they are unlikely to do so overnight, when they do, the speed with which their impacts are felt will be faster than many people imagine.

Keeping humans central

All these stories seem to be proving William Gibson’s almost-crusty adage, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” As fast as AI and automation are reshaping society, they are not happening — or are doing so slowly, in piecemeal fashion — in many others.

From a global perspective, this spectrum of experience not only provides a rich palette for experimentation and learning. It may also hold the seeds to getting automation and AI right.

Looking towards the future, I’m less concerned about how humans and machines will work together. It may be awkward and clunky for a while, but ultimately we’ll figure it out. Rather, I’m much more concerned about whether and how humans and humans will interact with one another. I share this concern regardless of place, culture, demographics or level of economic development. Having just been in Kosovo, and previously other places (such as Rwanda) that went from neighborly to genocide, I am particularly worried about the divides in the US and several other countries.

AI can help people save time, see new trends in large data sets, and reduce certain kinds of human errors. It can help us “do” better. But what AI has yet to do is teach us greater empathy, compassion, consciousness or a moral compass; it has not shown an aptitude to “level up” as humans. Indeed, thus far it appears to hold significant potential to lead us astray. For example, machines can learn what the human skin feels like, but they do not respond (as a sentient person would) to the human touch. A robot can give an artificial hug, but it lacks the endorphins released in embrace. (Companies like Affectiva assist with recognizing emotions, which should be applauded, but “emotion-enabling your app” should give pause for thought.) Especially in today’s world — where powerful figures shirk a moral compass, and large segments of society feel as though their lives have lost meaning and dignity worldwide — we must start and end with putting humanity, and human relationships, at the center of any technological transformation.

Global development organizations, wake up!

Emerging and developing markets — particularly those who have yet to have widespread smartphone uptake — generally have stronger community ties. Put simply, those people are more likely to spend time with other people than on their mobile devices. Further, and ironically perhaps, places with older demographics tend to have stronger social fabric. People with a longer rearview mirror remember, recognize, and prioritize the value of human relationships. They invest in long-term connections rather than short-term clicks.

When they do hit, automation and AI will reshape emerging and developing markets, to put it mildly. They will affect labor markets, globalization, income levels, inequality and productivity. They have the potential to bring even more people out of poverty, or — if roles that young people in developing markets typically tracked into are automated, if AI eliminates the need for outsourcing, or if industrial IoT technologies or 3D printing reduce the attractiveness of overseas factories — they may exacerbate the challenges faced. We should not underestimate the likely magnitude of these shifts.

To some degree, emerging markets may have a leg up right now. For example, platforms like Uber have yet to arrive in most frontier markets outside of large cities; this represents a unique opportunity for local entrepreneurs, if they move quickly (and even more so if they adopt platform cooperative principles). Other digital and platform companies wish to expand responsibly, which again represents a unique opportunity for partnerships with local private, public and civic organizations.

However, the very people who typically have forged such partnerships — namely, the international development community and impact investors — are notably absent from conversations about these shifts. The World Bank has rightly issued reports highlighting the jobs likely at risk, but implementation organizations do not seem to have received the message. They have not realized that companies are becoming platforms, jobs are becoming work, and decentralized networks are becoming bigger, more powerful and more relevant than centralized legacy institutions (for example, Google’s parent company Alphabet has roughly the same value as Argentina’s 2017 GDP, while Airbnb has more rooms than all major hotel chains combined — and its hosts are not employees).

Towards fewer lifers and more AIQ

Companies and individuals alike should be preparing for a future with fewer “lifers,” full-time employees and M-F schedules and more freelancers and collaboration networks. Policy makers should focus on meaningful income generation opportunities, remote work and self-employment rather than “jobs” creation. Whether Lagos or London, Delhi or Durban, we should be focusing on on-boarding today’s talent into these networks and building an enabling environment for independent workers to thrive.

We talk about IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence) and the latest iteration, DQ (digital intelligence). Perhaps the next iteration is AIQ: one’s ability to genuinely understand the forces of automation and AI, and to tap them in ways that amplify humanity. Calculated wisely, EQ+DQ=AIQ. High AIQ will be essential in a future that is not yet here, but will be soon.