I am fascinated by new digital technologies and where they are taking us. And the more I dig into the rapidly emerging world of artificial intelligence and blockchain technology, the more convinced I am about their potential to completely transform the world.
Of course, I can see the difficulties and challenges. But my overriding feeling is one of frustration: Why aren’t we moving faster? Why don’t governments take the digital transformation more seriously? Why is emerging tech not widely included in the curriculums of schools and universities?
One issue is the number of articles, videos, conferences, and other events that discuss emerging technology. Such “Tech Talk” is everywhere and increasing at a lightning speed. Our Internet culture is saturated with commentary on the on-going “Digital Revolution.” But this “Tech Talk” does not make people feel more secure about their knowledge of technology or the direction of change. Quite the contrary. The more people “listen,” the less they feel they understand.
Part of this is to do with the pace of change. The world is changing so quickly. We are becoming more digitally dependent and — at the same time — we feel that we understand less about the technologies structuring our lives.
And partly it is to do with the “mixed messages” that we receive from all this “Tech Talk.” There is so little agreement on the current state of technology. Even less on what it all means for our futures, both individually and collectively.
We live in an age where technology has “many faces” and the noise around tech can easily become unbearable. The result? Confusion. Anxiety. Caution.
But there really is no going back. “Breaking up” Big Tech, for instance, does not offer a solution. We cannot slow down the technological revolution. Innovators will always innovate. We will continue to experiment. This is particularly true for AI-related technologies, such as machine learning, neural networks, and deep learning. The explosive and disruptive growth of emerging technologies is here to stay.
Instead, we must find a way to accept that new technologies are completely transforming our world and learn to live with the uncertainty and confusion (the “many faces”) of tech. So, here are two suggestions on what we shouldn’t and should be doing.
What We Shouldn’t Do
Too many times I hear and read stories from people who try to “fit” technological developments into their current way of thinking. This is perfectly natural. But it isn’t always helpful.
We shouldn’t cling to the old when thinking about the new.
Here are three examples of such thinking that need to be avoided:
We should be careful with an “old-world” perspective or categories to think about emerging technologies.
Examples of such discussions abound. Is “artificial intelligence” really intelligent? Is “deep learning” really learning? Is a “smart contract” really a contract? Should a robot have “legal personality”?
Let’s call it “Misfitting.” The answer to these questions is usually “no” (AI is not intelligent, deep learning is not learning, etc.). And this answer is usually used to reject the significance of new technologies and to affirm the value of the old.
This way of thinking can be intellectually challenging, but it kind of misses the point. So, what if AI isn’t “intelligent” or deep learning isn’t “learning.” It is still useful. It solves real problems and creates new opportunities.
Everything is not in the name. We should not seek to understand new technologies in terms of “old world” categories, concepts and models. Rather, a new world is being created and we must understand it on its own terms. To do this, we need new and innovative perspectives and not the largely irrelevant discussions associated with Misfitting.
Then there is the idea of “adding” new technological solutions to older systems, models, and organizations in the belief that this will “future proof” an existing approach and make it more efficient. Let’s call it “Retrofitting.”
There is an acceptance that something important is happening and that everyone needs to engage with tech. But this engagement is about utilizing technology to make the old world better. Retrofitting is undoubtedly tempting. It respects the old, while acknowledging the new. But with digital technologies amplifying each other, we should understand that in most cases it just won’t work. Old ways of working will simply be disrupted. Technology has already automated many manual jobs. Knowledge workers will be next.
Finally, there is the temptation to think that all this talk about emerging technologies is just hype.
There is still a belief that nothing much will change (at least in the short-term to medium-term) and that “Tech Talk” is all just wasted energy. Better to focus on tackling today’s problems, rather than engage in idle speculation about an unknowable tomorrow. Again, the shortcomings of emerging tech are often emphasized. Think of the volatility in crypto or algorithmic bias and discrimination.
What We Should Do
We don’t have much choice. We must fully embrace the opportunities that new tech offers. We must broaden our horizons, even when the effects can be disrupting, confusing and anxiety-inducing. We should not be distracted by the many faces of emerging tech. We must embrace this complexity and ambiguity. We must embrace a new digital mindset that is more pro-active.
And here I don’t mean that we have to try to predict the future. We must become more “pro-actively” engaged in the design and creation of the new world. We must not wait and then act after the fact. Only then will we be able to deal with the many challenges that technology creates.
For instance, emerging technologies and their social applications will only serve our societal goals/needs, if we make sure that ethical issues are part of the technological development. Ethics needs to be included/embedded in the design and architecture of all new technology.
We also need to understand the power of communities and the wisdom of the crowd. Communities allow for multidisciplinary collaboration and co-creation. This, in itself, isn’t new. But the Internet and social media accelerate the emergence of communities. These communities often operate cross-border. Also, their activities are felt across industries. Their solutions find application in finance, healthcare, agriculture, etc.
The most successful established and start-up companies understand the power of communities. They offer co-working spaces, “open up” their IP portfolios, and create (or acquire) platforms that encourage people to build on each other’s work and stimulate experimenting. Consider GitHub, Kaggle, and TensorFlow in the area of software development, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. It is no surprise that companies that opened up in this way and started to operate as a platform have developed into severe competitors in many different industries and sectors of the economy/society.
Some fantastic stuff has seen the light of day recently in the areas of “autonomous machines,” “machine-to-machine” devices, and “machine-to-human” applications.
Consider the following examples.
Machines become more and more autonomous in performing tasks more effectively and efficiently than human beings.
“If we don’t know how to do it ourselves, we will let a computer learn how to do it” will become the new normal.
Companies are investing heavily in the Internet of Things economy. Machine-to-machine connectivity, interactions, and transactions will open a whole new world for blockchain networks (such as Ethereum) and smart contracts. Finally, experiments that make AI solutions an extension of our mind aren’t just future talk anymore and don’t appear too far away.
Emerging technology is creating a new world. Don’t be disrupted. Be engaged and involved in its further development. That’s the only way to prepare yourself and make sure that you are able to reap the benefits.