Rise of the machines – towards utopia or dystopia?

This article is a collection of thoughts from many of the participants of Monday evening Crowd Forum.  We are ‘learning our way’ into a better future and would be grateful for any further thoughts, comments or references that can expand the conversation. 

Monday night’s Crowd event was packed with people curious as to whether emerging technologies could support or detract from the sustainability and business agenda. Some were there for fear of keeping their jobs safe from the rise of robots; others were actively developing artificial intelligence, technology platforms and big data solutions to support clients. Some, like me, were curious as to what capabilities we will need to be relevant in a ‘machine’ future. Others wanted to understand how they could use their agency to shift outcomes of this disruption towards the positive.

After excellent talks from Sean Culey, Kriti Sharma, Prof. Kerstin Dautenhahn, Avida Hancock and Chris Middleton, I was lucky enough to chair a table full of curious minds from business, consultancies and NGOs. Thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts and experience. Below are some of the themes and questions that arose…

The threat

Many fears surfaced about the rapid rate of automation and the resulting job losses. We heard from Chris, that last year China bought 66,000 robots, replacing 1m jobs. As these robots learn and become more effective, more jobs will be replaced. We learnt that the 8.7m people in the US in the ‘driving industry’ are at risk from autonomous vehicles, as are the 1m people in call centres in the UK. Yet, jobs have been replaced by automation for a long time – the difference is that with adaptive robots, coupled with artificial intelligence, more ‘skilled’ jobs can be replaced. Google translate took a large team of programmers 10 years to put together, however, within a few months, starting from scratch, an AI team had a solution that was just as good. This AI solution now has far surpassed the original one designed by humans. Pepper, a ‘humanoid’ robot recently conducted a funeral. As one speaker said, “if you can explain what you do for a living, your job can, and will, become automated”.

Another fear raised is the threat to our existing social systems. How will our economic system deal with a “zero cost society”? If we see a concentration of technology in the hands of the few and a bigger rise in inequity, how will this affect our social and political structures? And how can our slow regulatory structures respond adequately to the super-charged rate of change?

Sharma Kriti raised another issue that struck against the fabric of our social structures when she quoted Gartner, “by 2020, the average person will have more conversations with AI than with their partner”. “Already we are more ‘wedded’ to our smart phones than our partners”, quipped one person.

One of the biggest areas for emerging technology is in war. The room went quiet thinking about the possibility of an AI driven apocalypse, the ability of this technology to radically change the way in which war is waged.

This wave of automation differs from previous waves both because of the speed of change and because it is connected, machine to machine. This means machines can interact without human interventions. It is predicted that by 2045 ‘tech singularity’ will emerge where machines will far surpass humans and not be controlled by them or need to include them, at all. What then, people asked, is left for all of us?

A reality check

Before the last major technological disruption, we were a largely agrarian society. Now, only 2% globally work in agriculture.  Humans are innovative and adaptive, and have managed in the intervening years to create new jobs and new ways to contribute to society. The question is how to transition as quickly and smoothly as possible in order to minimise the pain of transition.

We also forget that technology is neutral; it has no agency of its own and will only be as good or bad as how it is applied. For example, fire can burn your house down or keep you warm – it’s what you choose to do with it. We need to understand what new mechanisms we need in order to put technology to its best use in service of all of humanity.

This means that the biggest challenge is as quickly as possible to create the new societal model required for 7bn humans to flourish in a machine world.

The opportunity

On this basis there are fundamental shifts required now in every aspect of our society.

Those involved in creating technologies need to be educated to think through the implications of their activities. They should ask themselves ‘why’ they are doing a specific piece of automation – are they solving the right problems? They need to be clever about design and the databases they use to avoid coding in the social issues we suffer from today. Already we’ve seen problems emerge with MIT facial recognition software that couldn’t recognise black women and a prison system in the US that replicated the existing issues within the system when making recommendations on re-offending. An opportunity exists to use technology to build a better society and to remove the stereotypes and prejudices society currently suffers from.

Businesses need to change their mindset in three important ways:  First they need to ‘think like Amazon’.  They need to put the customer at the centre of their efforts and ask themselves different questions including, “How do you treat a physical product like software?” and, “How do you innovate in real time?” They need to consider localisation and micro-logistics, work with ‘prosumers’ to manufacture (possibly with 3D printing) on demand and look to shift their business models from products to servitisation. Secondly, they need to build capabilities to be resilient against whatever emerges – as Ocado put it, “forget forecasting – learn to deal with uncertainties”. Last, they need to model Tesla – create the systems of the future where, having everything interconnected means an exponential opportunity to learn.

For sustainability, the news from an environmental perspective may be good. Already the Smartphone had condensed our need for lots of different equipment into a small handheld device. We should see more dematerialisation and therefore less impact on resources. Technology can also support the circular economy through providing better designed products, tracking them and providing essential services to maintain and ultimately re-use them. Manufacturing on demand and mass customisation may lead to less waste and localisation to less carbon through distribution. From a social perspective, some argue that the rise of machines will allow us more time to focus on relationships while the robots take care of administration. They see a revival of local commerce. They believe that in a few years anyone will be able to design and automate – that it will be as simple as designing a website and that this will democratise technology. Last, they say rising transparency will force better behaviour from corporate and individuals. Sustainability professionals, grassroots activists and communities need to work with  technology as an opportunity to make their agenda more relevant to businesses and to leapfrog existing systems.

As Geoff Kendall suggested, Governments need to come together as they did for the SDGs – to create regulation to ensure the social and environmental benefits are hardwired into these systems. They need to work out how to support individuals through the transition (e.g. through the Universal Basic Income), how to educate differently and how tax should be collected and distributed.

Our political, economic, and social systems were created in a very different world than we live in today. Perhaps this offers the opportunity to revisit the foundations of our society – to ask what good looks like in a machine age and whether some of our assumptions upon which we live our lives are still valid. Do we need jobs? Should everyone work? How do we all want to live? What are the components of a happy, healthy society?

As Peter Drucker says, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Let’s get busy, then…

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This post is by Nicola Millson of The Future Academy. We work with organisations to ‘learn our way into a better future‘.  Please do contact nicola.millson@future-academy.co.uk if you have any comments or suggestions.

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