A Taste of the Future

We are living in incredible times — technology is advancing at a pace like never before and what we are witnessing in our lifetime is beyond what any book or film could have depicted. We already have the capability to create self-driving cars, pay with our watches, clone embryos, cure previously fatal diseases, and travel into virtual worlds. And in just 10 years from now, many of today’s most popular jobs will likely be obsolete, replaced with artificial intelligence, algorithms, robots and drones.

However, while all this development is very exciting, it is important to take a step back and look at this technological advancement from a wider perspective in order to see the bigger picture and ensure we are truly prepared for the future that awaits us. The fact is that sooner than we can imagine, there will be masses of educated people suddenly finding themselves out of a job, no longer having the relevant skills for the type of work that will be required. At the same time, the next generation isn’t being properly prepared for the types of vocations that will be needed, such as Data Scientists, Neuro-Implant Technicians and VR Experience Designers. Instead, they are still being educated using teaching methods and subjects that were created for the Industrial Age.

With all the advancement in technology and the development of the Internet of Things (IoT), where all ‘things’ will be connected, it’s also ironic that people are actually more disconnected now than ever before. We already have trouble being in the presence of others without being ‘connected’ to our phones or smart watches at every moment. Certain dating apps, while great for their ability to connect people who would never have the opportunity to meet, can make one feel as if they are chatting with a machine, making it OK to treat the person we are chatting with as an object void of feelings and compassion. And as machines become more sophisticated, and things like sex robots become more widely available, this behaviour is bound to become even more pronounced as those who prefer to hide behind their computers will no longer need to interact with another human being, even for the purpose of sex.

This leads us to ask ourselves the following questions: Is technology actually moving us towards a society full of people who will no longer know how to interact with one another? Can artificial intelligence ever truly replace human interaction and help with loneliness (the biggest cause of distress in humans today)? More importantly, is this what we want?

Last week, at the Web Summit in Dublin, I found it very interesting that in many of the discussions around topics such as Machine, Code, HealthTech, Society and Fashion, there was a common underlying theme; in fact, it was a particular word I noticed that kept resurfacing on every stage. That word was empathy. It seems that with technology advancing at such a fast pace, we are waking up to the fact that this is something that should concern us, and rightly so.

Empathy is developed through relationships with other people — both cognitive empathy (understanding someone’s feelings) and emotive empathy (feeling it alongside them). However, if we are moving further away from human interactions, and becoming more and more numb (due to the media as well as hiding behind our screens), then we are also at risk of losing our sense of empathy. And if we are losing our own sense of empathy, what does that mean for the machines we are creating?

One of the sessions at the Web Summit that I found particularly interesting was around Robot Ethics. If a driverless car is about to crash and has the option of either smashing a store front window, possibly injuring hundreds of shoppers, or swerving to hit another car, which could injure or kill two people, which choice will it make? How can we program the machine to make an ethical decision? Well, I believe it starts with us as humans having this empathy and integrity ourselves…

A few weekends ago, I was lucky enough to take part in a Socratic Design Transformational Retreat on IoT in Peralada, Spain, organized by my dear friend Rudy de Waele, where seven entrepreneurs who work in tech were invited to look at the topic of IoT from a philosophical perspective using the Socratic Design Method to create a strong frame of meaning for our businesses and for IoT in general. (This retreat took place under the guidance of philosopher, physicist and educator Humberto Schwab, who developed the Socratic Design Thinking Method. I highly recommend looking into this method for productive brainstorming and ‘out of the box’ thinking.) On the first day, we were challenged to come up with a question around IoT that would help us define and clarify the direction we think the development of IoT should take. After much discussion and debate (Socratic style), the question we came up with was ‘How can the use of IoT increase our happiness?’

We spent the rest of the weekend trying to answer this question by challenging our assumptions, listening to alternative viewpoints and perspectives and establishing a collective set of values. With these values in place, we then set out to come up with new technologies and businesses using those technologies that reflected these values and brought us closer to our purpose.

As you can imagine, this was an extremely challenging task, but really made us think about where we are headed and the reason we are developing all this technology in the first place. Do we really want to live in a world where everything is automated, run by robots, and there is no longer any need for human interaction? And although the collection and exchange of data has the potential to offer very personalised services and ultimately improve our lives, how can we ensure this is done in an ethical way?

What we eventually concluded is that it all comes down to people — and that without putting people first, all the technology in the world won’t actually move us forward as a society. We collectively decided that we want to develop and use technology to enhance and improve our lives so we have more time for being with the people we love and doing the things that make us feel most fulfilled. We also want to ensure that we don’t take away our innate need to create, as if everything becomes automated and there is no need for human skills, we will lose our sense of purpose. Not bad for one weekend!

Having been through this process and after listening to the discussions at the Web Summit, I’ve come to realize that the biggest innovation in the coming years will likely come not from the technology itself, but from the way humans and computers interact and that no matter how human-like machines become, we will always need conscious human emotional connections to survive.

We may not have all the answers yet, and there are many issues that will arise as the technology advances, but I do believe that IoT, and technology in general, can be used to increase our happiness and make the world a better place…and even create more empathy.

We just need to continue asking ourselves the right questions.