The brightest thinkers paint different views of our near to mid future. They describe alternate realities where automation and AI (often used interchangeably) come to rob us of our jobs or free us of our shackles. It’s possible that both camps might be right.
That we face an ever more divisive future, where vastly different fates and experiences will be enjoyed or endured by different segments of society. I believe that the future is still there to be shaped, but we need to pay heed to the less optimistic voices as well. The human race consistently shows an ability to prove its ability to reinvent itself and prosper – but also to sacrifice our long term benefit for short term gain. I understand those optimistic of a new era and also those who are fearful of what we will do with technology – technology which increasingly stretches the boundaries of credulity in terms of capability on a near a daily basis.
We already see exploration of emergent tech through shows like the brilliantly dark and prescient Black Mirror – stark provocations for us to explore the possible misuses to contrast with the benefits that we know we are sold. What happens when we are able to track people ever more effectively? To connect more effectively? To manipulate thinking more effectively? We can’t let the opportunities blind us to the risks, nor the risks blind us to the evident and profound opportunities.
It would be fair to say that we failed to heed the warnings from the Snowden revelations and we may be in danger of failing to heed a second warning from the Cambridge Analytica revelations. It would be reasonable to assume that we will get only so many warnings before our course is largely set. It would be a dangerously naive assumption that the profit motive will drive organisations to make the right choices about tech adoption and application. We’ve already seen examples of these lines being crossed from Facebook’s well documented, but poorly judged, attempts to attempt to see if emotions are contagious through to an online dating organisation deliberately setting up ‘bad dates’ to check the efficacy of their algorithms.
With regards to employment and the world of work we already hear of workers being tracked and even ‘progressive’ organisations experimenting with chipping employees. It does raise the question as to what progress really is. And who ‘progress’ is for. There is no doubt that we have questions to ask around motivations for these initiatives and about the impact on privacy. We also need to ensure that the employer/employee relationship does not become out of kilter as the years go by. At what point would a refusal to be chipped be a reason to decline someone for a role? At what point does opting out cease to be an option for us all? Freedoms so hard fought for by our ancestors being given up for convenience and productivity gains.
Or course there is an almost wonderous flipside of this technology and the contrast here is stark. For technology really does have the ability to free us. To free us of repetitive admin and what have been colourfully termed as ‘bullshit jobs’. To operate more efficiently and be better for the environment and free up our time to be more creative and connected. To allow us to take on jobs on the other side of the world without having to leave our friends and family behind. To allow work to be less dependent on physical mobility and more on output. To solve better for hiring decisons in terms of fairness and inclusion.
And that is at the heart of the problem. Our expectations of technology are all too often that it will represent perfection – a total solution – whereas it just needs to be better. It doesn’t need to be free of bias – it just needs to be less biased than us and a quick look at any relevant demographic breakdowns will tell you that we have set a low bar for fairness and equality. As a cautionary note the most dangerous thing we might do is rest on our laurels and assume our solutions are unbiased simply because the organisations providing them tell us so.
Technology can help us get ‘better’, but the challenge is to ensure that we define and agree ‘better’ in a socially cohesive and inclusive way. Because we need it to be better for us. Just in case better for me means worse for you. We wouldn’t design that so we shouldn’t enable that.
*not entirely sure how long this has just been sitting in drafts, I’m sure the future has moved on now*
Please note. This picture is dedicated to @robmccargow