Socio-economic development in the context of High Performance Computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning

A BRICS perspective

This is based on a talk I gave at the 1st BRICS Innovation Collaboration Forum on ICT and HPC on 26 April 2017 at Guangzhou University, Guangzhou, China where I was part of a delegation representing South Africa.

Big Technology

Context: We spent a few fascinating days delving into various high performance computing and artificial intelligence and machine learning applications in BRICS countries and we heard from the meeting participants where we see this going — for BRICS specifically. After hearing from all the delegates, I put together some thoughts on what this could mean for our emerging nations in all their diversity and complexity.

In very broad strokes, the two key elements that brought us where we are today, are digitization and networking. Digitizing information has given machines the ability to process and analyse it. Networking has connected people but also the machines processing data, giving access to new data sources, effectively making the Internet an organically connected form of distributed intelligence.

Today, we find ourselves at the meeting point of powerful technologies. Where technologies this powerful meet, new dimensions of innovation open up, which previously belonged in the realm of science fiction. Between high performance computing, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, lies the sweet spot that rushes us into the 4th industrial revolution.

This results in a profound change in the meaning of certain things. Let me illustrate with an example. A few years ago, “automobile safety” meant crash tests, in which a limited number of cars, usually with a dummy passenger, are crashed against a fixed target in a controlled environment. The nature and level of damage to the crashed vehicles and the dummy are used to rate the car’s safety. This; a few events carried out far away from us, and documented on paper; is what we relied on to trust that a vehicle could keep us safe.

Credit: Unknown, I would be happy to stand corrected and give credit where it is due.

Within a few years, “automobile safety” will mean something completely different. We are probably just months away from expecting nothing less than a real time situational awareness and safe reactivity of any vehicle. Automobile safety will mean a technology stack constantly measuring the situation around the vehicle, including the state of its functions (engine temperature, tire pressure, etc.) with cameras and an array of sensors. An on-board and connected computer will analyse that data in real-time to evaluate the immediate safety of the car, its passengers and other actors in its immediate surroundings, at every moment.

Credit: Unknown, I would be happy to stand corrected and give credit where it is due.

Similarly, a few years ago, an astronomy graduate student would have travelled to a telescope, carried out observations, brought the data back on their laptop and analysed them at their home institute. today astronomy is truly a big data science with data sets of unprecedented size and complexity that are remotely analysed by large teams to produce new science.

The shift facilitated by the meeting of big technologies can be broadly described as a move from simplistic once-off analyses to a real-time, contextually relevant intelligence. It is a change of perspective from systems characterised by a limited number of static and statistical indicators to a granular, non-linearly interacting complex system allowing the inclusive analysis of outliers.

With this comes the need to change how we think about the grand topics affecting our societies, and how we should assist our governments in creating instruments to steer our nations and our societies in the right direction.

What about BRICS?

The BRICS countries can be described in terms of what unites us, our differences, our diversity, the similar challenges we face and so on. I don’t have the ambition to list these descriptions here other than to mention that some challenges can be seen as opportunities and that certain advantages can be seen as difficulties. I would rather ask the following question:

As a group of nations, what truly differentiates us from the rest of the world?

One possible answer is this:

If we look at the age distribution of the BRICS population and the numbers this represents, we can draw one conclusion. Together, BRICS comprises the majority of the present and future brain power of the world.

Why does this matter? In the 4th industrial revolution as described by the World Economic Forum, the main key skills of the future are

1. Complex problem solving
2. Social skills and emotional intelligence
3. Content skills (IT literacy, active learning)
4. Cognitive abilities (Creativity and mathematical reasoning)
5. Process skills (active listening and critical thinking)

These skills cannot be substituted by machines in the foreseeable future. The big question I would like to ask then becomes:

If our differentiator is that we hold the future brain power of the world, is aiming for socio-economic development ambitious enough?

My answer to this is no. It may be enough to train this brain power, but BRICS nations need to be world leaders where the brain power the most in demand, where big technology lives. Otherwise we will fail to retain those non-substitutable skills and that brain power.

For that, I have a proposal. Instead of limiting ourselves to socio-economic development, let us strive to build RESILIENT societies.

RESILIENCE

What do I mean by this?

For societies, resilience means the ability to achieve active transformation. This is where things like economic growth and better public health reside.

Resilience means the capacity to rapidly and efficiently respond to sudden challenges such as natural disasters, epidemics, economic collapses, within or without our borders. This can include prevention, early detection, technology-assisted response systems, containment measures, and more.

Resilience means the ability to foresee and integrate long-term change, and to design strategies that embrace the inevitable. It serves no-one to deny climate change for short-sighted economic benefit. But it does help to be prepared in the face of emerging conflicts, or growing public health issues such as diabetes.

Resilience means minimising the economic and human cost of change. For example, adapting education when entire employment sectors are replaced by technology and cultivating solidarity to collectively carry through those who would otherwise be left behind.

Resilience means developing foundational relationships that cannot be exploited for political leverage. A few years ago, who would have thought that the European Union could be breaking up? Or that divisions within American society would lead to someone like Donald Trump to be elected president? Some things need to be respected, almost sacred, to allow people, however diverse, to feel connected to each other and make choices for the benefit of the many, rather than for the diminishing few who feel close enough to oneself.

Resilience means being inclusive, simply because we can only progress collectively. And not to set back the next generation of innovators that will not overlook us, when we become obsolete.

All of the above can be substantially facilitated by big technology and must be achieved with the right non-substitutable skills. If we realise this, we will be able to retain the human capital that BRICS’ collective young population currently represents.

In fact, I will go a step further and claim that aiming for resilience is to adopt a positive view of our development that is not limited to a game of catch-up to simplistic metrics dating back to a pre-big-technology era, and that we know are not an appropriate measure of our well-being[*].


Truth be told, we cannot deny that the whole world is facing unprecedented challenges. In developed countries today, changes such as immigration, slowing economies, climate change tend to trigger a negative rhetoric articulated around “problems”. Developed countries are not equipped to cope and we observe a tendency in those countries to isolate themselves more and more.

At the heart of “BRICS”, however, is the premise that collaboration is a better way to achieve wellness for all. Therein lies a recognition that our fates, as inhabitants of one beautiful planet but with limited resources, are inextricably linked. BRICS is a therefore a powerful vision, and an ambitious decision to go beyond short-sighed objectives. It is a decision to embrace challenges to grow beyond them.

So let us not see challenges as something to run away from, and let us not place limits to our ambitions. Change will always be there, the ground will always move underneath our feet. Challenges are a necessary condition for us to learn to future-proof our societies and achieve resilience.

Technology development has reached a tipping point but people is what will determine how big technology serves us, and people is what we have. So here is to hoping that we get it right.

[*] As GDP for example, does not measure how people who feel that they have a lot to lose live in fear

Image credits: All images are creative commons license CCO or my own unless stated otherwise. Apologies where credit and right to use is unknown, also stated above.