Hacktiviste for Amusement magazine. Photography by Gregoire Veille
Last week I had the pleasure of attending Bora-Co’s debut event #BreakOut, hosted at the JellyFish offices at The Shard London.
The theme: Ethical codes in a digital age.
“Digital technologies are disrupting the world around us. Shaping societies, worldviews and access to information. But they are developing faster than the codes we wrote to govern them… how do we respond?”
As I cycled towards London Bridge and the famous landmark I started to wonder if I should know more about technology to be able to appreciate this. I hoped it wouldn’t all go over my head, safe in the knowledge that even if it did at least the view would be pretty incredible!
I was relieved and joyful to discover that my slight technophobe tendencies were not an issue — I came away with a full mind, contemplating how tech can help enhance our human qualities, and how we can use it for good. Here are some learnings, thoughts and reflections from the day — surprisingly human focused for a day about digital technology.
Big Bang Data, at Somerset House, 2015. An exhibition about the data explosion that’s radically transforming our lives
First speaker of the day, Gerd Leonhard, from The Futures Agency, painted a picture of a future world where technology grows exponentially. Let me set the scene:
…adding more to our lives everyday. We can feel it in little yet permeating ways, through our digital and social media actions, and the red notification dots that never go away, and on a bigger scale, we read of news every week where a significant step has been made in AI, big data, the internet of things, or sequencing the human genome.
…developing at an exponential rate. Gerd predicts tech will change humanity more in the next 20 years than the previous 300 years.
… becoming a reality. It’s difficult to draw the boundary between the real and digital, the on and offline worlds.
… no longer about ‘if?’. Technology can do almost anything — the question is no longer if it can do something, but why should it do something? And who controls it?
…a huge economic force. According to Gerd technology has more power than banking and oil ever did. — The country that owns AI will rule the world. Beijing has already claimed that it wants AI to be ‘made in China’ by 2030, and many powerhouses of the world (China, Russia and the USA included) already see it as key to future geopolitical power.
…smart. And becoming smarter. — yes technology can learn, but it doesn’t come close to human intelligence and qualities. Our emotions, sensitivity, morals, values and creativity cannot be replaced or matched by machines.
“If a machine was fed all of the philosophy books in the world, would that make it a philosopher?”
…morally neutral. Technology has no ethics… until we apply it.
This poses new ethical challenges. Russell Davies, DotEveryone, took a modern day example of the trolley problem — a challenge driverless car companies are facing. In an emerging incident, should the car save one person, or should it save the many? When a human is not in charge, should the technology make the decision and based upon what? Who is responsible, who has the choice? This is a new problem technology has put us in a position to deal with, how might they put the human back into that choice? Well, Mercedes Benz have made the decision that it its driverless cars will chose to prioritise its own passengers, their customers. Justifying that if you know you can save at least one life you should do that.
Gerd believes all this shows that the future is no longer an extension of the present: technology takes us in new directions, it is changing who we are, as individuals, as citizens, as employees, as leaders, as society.
Technology might be all these things, but the future it might create is not set in stone.
Survivor by Reija Meriläinen for ARS 17: Hello World! An exhibition that explores how the rise of digital has shaped society, consumer behaviour and communities.
‘Human’ was a theme that came up over and over again throughout the day — what it means to be a human in a world of exponential growth in technology. The thoughts that kept coming to mind revolved around these questions How can technology enable us to be more human? So that we can do what we do best? So our human qualities can complement the qualities of technology.
A hot topic of the day, and one that is much talked about in the media currently — machines, automation and robots will take jobs away from humans. People are concerned about unemployment and no longer being needed. But this scenario also means that the things that cannot be digitized or automated will become much more valuable — our human strengths will be needed more than ever.
“Algorithms outperform human intelligence when it is not about understanding, mental or emotional states, intentions, interpretations, deep semantic skills, consciousness, self- awareness and flexible intelligence” Luciano Floridi
To me this signals more than ever how our education system needs to focus and invest more than ever in creativity, emotions, consciousness, semantics, adaptability… instead of cutting funding to the arts subjects which innately teach a lot of these human skills.
#BreakStereotypes by Secret Code, US
Gerd’s words felt rather pertinent.
‘We must invest as much in humanity as we do in technology’
Without doing so are we at risk of being overwhelmed by technology, and a pressure to keep up with it’s growth? The fact that mental health statistics around the world are worse than ever before seems like a sign to me. But why should technology put a barrier between us and our human states and take away from pure experiences?
One thing that distinguishes us greatly from technology is that we are inefficient by nature — we need to sleep, we have desires, we need feeding, we have emotions. In a world where efficient technology (that’s not driven by desires and emotions) increases the pace of life, production, work etc. — Will technology threaten our rights to be inefficient? and how might that continue to affect the mental health crisis?
Vinay Nair, Lightful asked ‘How much room is there for serendipity when technology and digital tools streamline and control our lives down to minute detail? Algorithms create predictability and can fool us into thinking we’ve discovered something new, when really they’re making recommendations based upon our history, data or habits of similar audiences.
Removing the chances for serendipity, technology could become limiting, rather than creating all those opportunities it promises. I wonder how technology might be used to create serendipitous moments in real life. How could it facilitate interactions, or create the space we need to discover something perfect completely by accident?
The human + the tech
After so much scene setting. It was uplifting to hear how some are thinking about technology as an influence for good.
Ela Rose, technology catalyst at Forum for the Future spoke about how their work focuses on how to make technology a positive driver for systems change.
The questions they look for answers to are:
– How might we use technology to accelerate current sustainable solutions?
– How might we harness specific technologies to create new solutions?
– How might we manage unintended consequences of these technologies?
There were too many fantastic examples of technology doing just that. But one that stuck out, how drones can improve agriculture. Their ability to plant seeds, scan the land and soil, be more precise, as well as be able to send data back to the landowner and farmer to be analysed to create the most optimum conditions; helping both people and planet to prosper.
PrecisionHawk drones are equipped with multiple sensors to image fields.
Katz Kiely spoke about using technology to connect people and facilitate positive culture in business. She asked — how do we use technology to connect people and unleash the human potential in business?
Culture is everything in business in a connected world, yet productivity and trust are lower than ever.
She explained two human states.
- The reward state — in which we are communicative and collaborative.
- The threat state — in which we freeze or run, to get away from predators.
Today predators aren’t the saber tooth tigers of the good old days, they can masquerade in companies as change. We are hardwired to dislike change, when it’s forced upon us we find ourselves stressed. As herd creatures this leads people to stop working together and creates silos, poor communication and inefficiency.
However, in the right culture you can move people towards the rewards state, where they listen and work together. People can act as sensors as to what is going on, making it possible to create a culture that listens to the collective intelligence to create change. Rather than force it upon people and move them into threat state.
Her company, Kiely & Co, has created BEEP (Behaviour Enterprise Engagement Platform) — a secret kept behind closed doors, but one that promises to embed people-powered change. I will be interested to hear stories of how this works.
Still from Geomancer by Lawrence Lek. The film imagines artificial intelligence taking on the role of an artist.
Where do we go from here?
The day brought up a lot of questions and challenges that we are facing. It emphasised how uncertain and unknown our future is, and the need to consider our use of technology to shape it for the better.
It’s easy to think of humans and technology as opposites, or in competition with each other.
It’s this kind of thinking that is unproductive and detrimental. In the same way that we need to work together as people to create a future where our planet and people can flourish. We need to think of technology in the same way — another thing we can work with to build a better future.
Gerd’s final slides showed the 2017 FutureOfLife AI principles: guidance for the future of technology, business and society.
Human values: all systems should be designed and operated to be compatible with ideals of human dignity, rights, freedoms and cultural diversity
Shared benefit and prosperity: to benefit and empower as many people as possible
Ecosystem thinking: ethical, economical and societal issues need to be included
Responsibility: those that design, build or run these systems are moral stakeholders
We created technology, let’s embed these principles within it and feed it the human qualities needed to put ourselves and our planet on the right trajectory.
I’m always keen to talk to people who care about our world, to see where conversation may lead us. Let’s find time: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re really interested and have a few minutes to spare — you can also read some more of my musings as I enter a world of system change here: Metamorphosis-matters