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What You Should Do in a World of Artificial Intelligence (and No Privacy)

“AI, big data and robotics are just too dangerous . . . To protect people, regulators should step in and tighten laws.”

“What will happen to privacy in a world dominated by AI, big data and robotics?”

“What do I need to do to remain relevant in a world of constant technological change?”

These were just some of the comments and questions I received in response to a post that I made last week on Medium.

The post described three strategies that can help business leaders to adjust to the new realities of a fast-changing technology-driven world.

In order to remain relevant, businesses must be transformed from hierarchical process-oriented organizations to inclusive ecosystems in which open dialogue (in particular, asking hard questions) is encouraged and valued. Only through genuine self-evaluation can businesses maintain relevancy in today’s hyper-competitive global markets.

But it is not only businesses that need to maintain a constant focus on “remaining relevant”.

AI, big data and robotics — often referred to as the next generation digital disruption — also pose a serious challenge to individuals.

Automation and other new technologies will make us less relevant in the new world. You hear more and more talk about how machines will take over our jobs and even threaten our existence.

What then should individuals be doing in order to ensure that they remain relevant in an age of AI, big data and automation?

Culture of Fear

A fear of technology — the fear of losing relevancy — has been around since the Industrial Revolution, and probably even longer. Yet, the exponential growth of technology, artificial intelligence, the “self-learning” capacity of machines and the emergence of “human-like” robots, has created a sense that this threat is more serious than ever before.

This week, for instance, Alibaba Founder and CEO, Jack Ma, warned that AI will cause people “more harm than happiness”. He predicted that social conflicts will increase as new technologies and longer life expectancies leave people fighting for fewer jobs.

This kind of fear of the new world is everywhere.

In my discussions with students, colleagues, and friends, I always try to focus on the benefits of new technology, such as better healthcare, a cleaner environment and greater access to information. But the idea of losing out from technology seems to be everywhere.

Elon Musk’s suggestion that “if you can’t beat the machines it is better to become one” seems particularly threatening. Almost everyone I discussed this with found the idea of a world of machine implants and human-machine “cyborgs” to be deeply disturbing.

And yet, there seems to be little doubt that this is the direction that we are heading. High levels of investor activity in the fields of AI and robotics (including drones) provide a reliable indicator of the lightning speed development of smart machines and human-machine interfacing.

The Exponential Growth of Venture Capital Investments in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Robotics and Drones; Source PitchBook

The result? There is a clear disconnect between a widespread fear of technology, on the one hand, and the rapid speed of technological developments, on the other.

So, what could or should be done to get us out of this mess?

Back to the Future

One response to this predicament is to go “Back to the Future” and to retreat into a private space that is seen as safe and secure. I often meet people who seek to minimize their online footprint and — by doing so — reduce the production of data.

Think about it. Data undoubtedly feeds the development of artificial intelligence and other new technologies. By being more careful about the production of such data, this approach to “modern living” seeks to minimize the risk of exposure to the risks of technological change.

According to this argument, the key to our future survival is “privacy”.

Regulators must help us by implementing stringent data protection rules and regulations. This would give us more control over our data and would reduce the risk of our data being misused. In addition, we need to ensure that “our data” is only be used for the purpose for which it is collected (the so-called “purpose limitation” principle that forms the cornerstone of contemporary data protection rules).

This all sounds wonderful in theory, but will it actually work in practice?

Re-Defining Privacy

Unfortunately, the answer is no. We cannot turn back time. There is no completely private space available to us, anymore. Most of the things we do are already registered as data somewhere (and this occurs as soon as we do them). Purpose limitation is not always possible.

We have fallen in love with the algorithmically driven companies that utilize technology to deliver an instantly better user experience. They pervade all aspects of everyday life. We already live in a world of big data. And we cannot stop the emergence of artificial intelligence.

The Internet of Things means that all of our devices are already connected (or will be connected in the near future). Connected and smart cities will continue to make our lives better. Our telephones already keep track of our moves and our connections and favorite places. Smart fridges keep track of our groceries. The list goes on and on. And, perhaps most obviously, we love being connected and sharing our lives with others, via social media and other online platforms.

This does not mean that privacy disappears or that it ceases to matter.

Privacy is, and will continue to be, enormously important. Rather, privacy has been transformed by the proliferation of network technologies and the new forms of unmediated communication that such technologies facilitate.

In particular, technology has changed the character of the “zone” of privacy, that people expect to be protected. There has been a shift from a settled space based on a clear distinction between public and private life to a more uncertain and dynamic zone that is constructed by and between individuals.

Privacy as a well-defined space over which a person has “ownership” has been replaced by a more complex space that is constantly being negotiated and contested.

Work is similarly transformed. Businesses are becoming more flexible ecosystems / networks / platforms. “Lifetime” employment is no longer feasible or even desirable in a digital world. Working relationships become looser and more transitory as businesses are introducing more flexible work arrangements in which “employees” are “hired” for well-defined, but successive “tours of duty”.

The result is that we live in a world of fluid identities and expanded scope for personal expression. Today’s culture is more open and transparent, as old hierarchies are disrupted. A new culture of sharing facilitates learning, discovery, collaboration and innovation. It is world of great opportunity and possibility.

Crucially, however, we need to become smarter ourselves and become “better” connected in order to exploit the opportunities and possibilities that this new world offers.

So, what is to be done?

The Power of Storytelling

To overcome this fear of technology, what must individuals be doing? How can individuals remain relevant in a new world of constant technological change and fluid identities?

I can’t pretend to have all of the answers, but one thing is clear. In this new world, “out-of-the-box thinking” is crucial and everybody needs to think more like an entrepreneur.

Let me offer one practical suggestion about how we might go about achieving this.

In a constantly changing world, we all need to better understand the art and power of storytelling, and become better storytellers.

In order to succeed, we need to become a smart link in this networked and digital world. And one of the best ways to do this is to develop our capacity to build and then project a compelling personal narrative about ourselves. By doing so, we can take control of our lives and reduce the fear that technology will render us irrelevant.

But in order to construct such a narrative, we need to study and understand the art of storytelling in a digital age.

Consider how vloggers, bloggers, and other online creators are changing and disrupting the world. They are arguably best prepared for what is coming. They are the darlings of the Internet and they are entering into amazing partnerships and collaborations.

Understanding and learning the techniques of the most successful online “storytellers” — think Casey Neistat, Lilly Singh, Roman Atwood — is a good starting point. Here are some suggestions for storytelling — constructing a persuasive and convincing narrative about ourselves — in a networked age:

(1) Understand your Audience. Always identify the audience and constantly ask: “Why is my story relevant to them? Why should they care?”.

(2) Plan. Just informing the audience of certain facts / achievements / experience, particularly “past performance”, is no longer enough. Design a story that “connects the dots” and that the audience will care about. Spend time crafting a clear scripted storyboard that summarizes your narrative.

(3) Be Authentic. Honesty and integrity are always appreciated. Make your story personal and reveal your values and vulnerabilities.

(4) Show Trajectory. A good story has direction. Show where you are coming from, what you have learned and where you are going.

(5) Be Accessible. Keep your story simple. In a world with abundant information, accessibility matters. Otherwise, the audience will quickly move on to someone else.

(6) Think about Platforms. The audience will never come to you. You must find the audience. Think about the right platform for disseminating your story.

(7) Show Don’t Tell. Nobody likes being lectured at. Illustrate key points with “stories within a story”.

(8) Listen to Feeback and Iterate. Your story is never “finished”. Learn from audience reaction and constantly revise.

(9) Start a Dialogue. The ambition is to be and remain relevant by being in the conversation.

(10) Create a Culture around “Storytelling”. In order to get noticed, you should constantly engage in “storytelling”.

The Takeaway

Being invisible in the networked world of artificial intelligence is not going to save you. It will only increase the chance of being left alone and falling into irrelevancy.

Fear of technology will result in failure.

Crucially, understanding the power and the art of storytelling gives you control over your life. It helps you to become colourful, giving mission and vision to life. It mitigates fear, rather than feeds it. What is true for business in the new world appears to be even more true for individuals.




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Erik P.M. Vermeulen

Erik P.M. Vermeulen

Gen X Writer — Professor — Lawyer

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