The Rise of Conscious Combinatorial Technology
What’s the next big tech thing after our rapturous submission to AI and autonomy has run its course?
The mainstream media is fascinated by talk about robots replacing human workers in many jobs and Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking over the human race within a generation. There is an even bigger innovation coming.
To start, a few of the more realistic AI and robotics predictions:
- By 2018, 1.3 million industrial robots will have replaced factory workers around the world.
- By 2018, more than 3 million workers globally will be supervised by a “robo-boss.”
- By 2018 global sales of privately used service robots will exceed 35 million units (carers, cleaners, drivers, mowers).
- There will be a $1.5 billion market for consumer and business robots by 2019.
- By 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be managed by robots.
- The combined market for AI and robotics will blossom to $153bn by 2020 — $83bn for robots, and $70bn for AI.
- The AI market is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 53.65% from 2015 to 2020.
- The Big Data market will top $61 billion in 2020, a 26% compound annual growth rate for 2011–2020.
- The Predictive Analytics market will grow from $2.74 Billion in 2015 to $9.20 Billion by 2020, at a compound annual growth rate of 27.4%.
As impressive as these statistics are, there is a far more thrilling wave of innovation coming.
“The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” John Naisbitt, futurist
Traditionally, technology has had a singular purpose: make life easier, faster, cheaper, more efficient. It has done so spectacularly well. To achieve these efficiencies, technology has had to measure and control.
All systems, from the simplest to the most complex, require control to keep them operating efficiently. This involves comparing information about what is happening with what we want to happen and then making appropriate adjustments. Control typically requires three elements:
- Feedback from sensors or other sources of information;
- Comparisons of that feedback to a predetermined result (and perhaps to other data input);
- A means for optimising and activating changes to improve efficiency.
For example, an oven is a fairly simple system that compares the information from a temperature sensor to a control setting and turns the heating element on or off to keep the temperature inside the oven within a small range so that the roast doesn’t burn.
As controls increase in complexity, they too require coordination, which means additional layers of control. Improvement in communication speeds, data storage capacity and rapid processing of information makes very elaborate systems of control now possible. Think for example, of the complex control systems required to send a rocket into space.
Control vs. Connection
All technology has ‘control’ baked into its core design, while humanity’s primary need (once safety is assured) is ‘connection.’
You may argue that social media has allowed us to “be more connected” than ever before, but the idea that social media is creating an empathy deficit is gaining ground — rapidly. You’ll find an explosion of scholarly papers on the same topic, if you care to dive into the research. If you’re still not convinced try Sherry Turkle’s two books, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. The evidence is clear: our rapturous submission to digital technology and social media has led to an atrophying of human qualities like empathy, connection, intuition and self-reflection.
Digital technology has failed to fulfil society’s basic need to connect.
There is a simple reason why digital technology has failed at increasing connection: each platform’s business model requires measurement and control. Advertisers (currently the most common source of revenue) need to know their potential reach, actual reach, conversion rate and return on investment, which requires measurement throughout.
Feedback in each of these platforms is provided through what most platforms call engagement. Clicks and tweets and likes and backlinks and shares and ❤’s and pokes (remember them) is technology’s only way of measuring engagement — the country cousin of empathy. As a result, in a world that is more connected than ever before, technology still does not facilitate meaningful connections and conversations. Engagement is measured in a binary fashion, Twitter limits to 140 characters and Facebook minimizes to 1-click actions. What technology lacks, humans crave: empathy.
More human-centric technology is slowly evolving.
In his extensive 2009 book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, leading scientific theorist W. Brian Arthur introduced the idea of combinatorial evolution. Very simply, each of our technologies is a system, assembled from earlier technologies. For example, the GPS and navigation system we take for granted in smartphones combines the earlier technologies of satellites, computing chips, radio receivers, transmitters and atomic clocks into a single, infinitely more valuable technology. Interestingly, the value of a new technology lies not just in what it does, but also in what further technologies it will lead to — every new technology becomes a building block for future technologies, ad infinitum.
In a simpler pre-industrial world, we had fewer things to combine. Today we have a seemingly infinite number of technologies to work with. Our technologies are now deep and complex, with many nested levels, creating an exponential number of possible combinations.
As exciting as all this talk of exponential combinations is, there’s another angle to combinatorial technology — one that has the potential to meet society’s needs for connection.
Neuroscience and educators are beginning to understand how brain lateralisation affects society and it appears we are currently transitioning to a society where right-brained values are celebrated more than left. Simplistically, left = control and right = connection. Other right-brain values include empathy, nurture, connection, collaboration and inter-dependence.
As society shifts towards right-brain values (we’re currently in a transition phase until circa 2030), it’s likely that we will see more and more startups and entrepreneurs combining technology built for efficiency, speed and cost reduction with emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence and blockchain to enhance empathy and connection. I predict we will soon start seeing technology that’s far more conscious of its own environment, the environment, its users and its stakeholders and will provide a far more human-centric experience.
These emerging technologies will create an entirely new category: Conscious Combinatorial Technology.
Conscious Combinatorial Technology Defined
Innovation with ‘connection’ baked into its core design. The innovation enhances empathy, collaboration, nurture, intuition and inter-dependence.
Early Examples of Conscious Combinatorial Initiatives
- Shaping Holistic Inclusion in Future Technology, a team of virtual reality pioneers including Helen Situ, Jenn Duong, Julie Young, Abby Albright, and Sarah Stevenson.
- Empathy Driven Development, from the CEO of Corgibytes, Andrea Goulet.
- Empathic Design and Technology, a human-computer interaction (HCI) research group at Drexel University’s College of Computing and Informatics.
- Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, understanding the dynamics and implications of interactions among people in immersive virtual reality simulations (VR), and other forms of human digital representations.
- MIT’s Affective Computing Research Group that researches technology that deliberately influences emotion or other affective phenomena.
- Affectiva, Emotion Recognition Technology.
- Sofiia is redefining online personal relationships, led by the incredible Tracy Saville and Laura Hansen.
- secco is building a world where your worth is the contents of your character, not the contents of your wallet. Led by Chris Gledhill and Vicky Barton.
- OpenDNA who are building a Personal Data Exchange.
Know of any other #ConComTech startups, research groups, non-profits or innovations? I’d love to hear about them! Tweeting is best.
- Statistics quoted at the beginning of this article courtesy of TechEmergence and World Robotics.
- A three-component framework for empathic technologies, a paper by Joris H. Janssen.
- The empathic care robot, a paper by Bernd Carsten Stahl.
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom.
- The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves by W. Brian Arthur.
You made it to the end! If you’re interested in helping us solve some of the planet’s grand challenges with our ambitious Project 2030, please check out the overview, and invite others to do the same.
Postcards from 2035
Have you come across Postcards from 2035? It’s a series of profoundly simple interlinking ideas describing life in a highly desirable society, where everything and everyone is advanced, happy, intelligent and problem-free. It’s a blueprint of the world we need to co-create. Here’s what that world could look like.