It’s Time To Put Human Beings – Not Profit – At The Centre Of Technology

It’s Time To Put Human Beings – Not Profit – At The Centre Of Technology

Ciarán Daly

June 6, 2019

9 Min Read

by Mark S. Wilson

LONDON - Over the last hundred years, as technology has evolved, we have allowed priorities to get out of balance, with an increasing focus on a single bottom line: profit.

With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), tech is now coming of age, and we are in a position where we must seize the reins and regain control over technology, approaching it with responsibility in mind.

Responsibility for the safety, security and privacy of future generations - and responsibility for the creation and use of all technology. And we must start today.

At the heart of a world where responsible tech is the norm are the tech leaders of today – those with the power, motivation and influence to make a positive difference.

To encourage and inspire the responsible use of technology, tech leaders must optimise their organisations to bring back the balance between not one, but three bottom lines: profitability, sustainability and trust. This will ensure that technology continues to transform our lives for the better.


impact of tech on our lives

We live in an era distinguished by wide-ranging and technological progress. Software is the technology at the heart of this. Every single day a staggering 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated globally, according to IBM.

Muchof this data is generated to satisfy our increasingly mobile and connectedlives. The Internet of Things (IoT) is hurtling at such a pace that forecastsof the total number of connected devices in the immediate future are seeminglyout of date as soon as they are published.

And there’s more. Look around you; AI is changing the world – fast. The creation of intelligent machines that allow facial recognition, speech recognition, problem-solving, machine learning, robotics and much more is rapidly expanding what we can accomplish with technology.

The impact of technology is also being felt in finance – where the emerging FinTech sector includes an array of tech-led developments covering everything from the use of blockchain technologies to crowdfunding and mobile banking. In healthcare, technology is behind blockchain-enabled hospitals, bioprinting and intelligent drug design, while gene-editing technology is being employed in the global fight against malaria.

Itis also transforming manufacturing, which finds itself in the early stages ofan era of business transformation that will rival the impact of the IndustrialRevolution. This time however, the transformation will come from innovations inadditive manufacturing, or 3D, printing, possibly the biggest leap inmanufacturing innovation since the assembly line.

Related: It's time to make AI innovation truly inclusive



Indeed,such is the potential from technology that, for many, it serves as a universalpanacea, commanding near blind faith in its ability to solve all the world’sproblems. Yet, as John Powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair andInclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, succinctly putsit, “technology will not save us.”

Thesame technologies that offer such promise also present great risks, and theworld we live in is becoming more dangerous, and our systems more precarious,as a result. Indeed, the rapid and largely unchecked development of technology,and its wholesale adoption by users, has in many cases, given rise tounforeseen, unintended and highly dangerous consequences.

Untilvery recently, for example, the stance of large social media sites has been toclaim they are not responsible for the content on their platforms. In doing so,they have leaned on a central tenant of internet platform regulation in USlegislation, namely section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Yetthis same law, which absolves social media firms of any responsibility for thecontent they host, has allowed fake news and misinformation to emerge and thenspread across their platforms. The freedom that was perhaps naively enshrinedin legislation has encouraged a free-for-all fight on social media.

Insome cases, consequences have malicious behaviour at their root, as technologyhas been developed without sufficient attention being paid to how it might beabused. It only takes a few bad actors to manipulate technology and put it todestructive purposes never imagined at the point of its creation.

Who could have foreseen that personal data from millions of social media users could be harvested illegally and put to dubious ends for political advantage? This is the type of behaviour that Shoshana Zuboff, in her recent book 'Surveillance Capitalism', might describe as presenting “startling challenges to market democracy”. Such acts might represent an “expropriation of critical human rights”, according to Zuboff, and be best understood as “an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”.

It is precisely because AI presents such promise for humankind - yet also poses such a risk - that, in a rare example of forward thinking, OECD members took initial steps to govern its development last month. Yet most creators of technology still fail to recognise the potential, unforeseen consequences of the untrammelled development of their technology.

Users, meanwhile, remain largely ignorant of the transactional nature of their relationship with big tech and social media platforms.

Related: AI bias isn't a data issue - it's a diversity issue


the human being at the centre

Going forward, technology development must take a balanced approach that puts the human being at the centre of its efforts. Instead of replacing people with technology, we need to find opportunities to improve wellbeing and increase human opportunities through technology.

Technology should always serve humanity, not the other way around. The development of technology has to be carefully managed. Above all, we must always respect the rights of human beings. Humanity must come first.

In Silicon Valley, the development of technology has become synonymous with a distinct way of working, which demands supercharged growth to secure a significant user base, upon which typically sky-high valuations are then based.

In the race to reach the magic status of a $1bn 'Unicorn', attention to the needs of users often suffers, while any inherent issues in the technology, or unforeseen consequences in its wider adoption, are sacrificed in the pursuit of a single bottom line - profitability.

Lookingahead, to build a company for the long-term optimising for profit alone is notenough. Tech leaders must seek a balance between three bottom lines, so theirorganisations are sustainable, trustworthy and, yes, profitable. While thefunction or direction of one organisation will of course differ to another, allthose that embrace tech for life would share a common purpose in being sustainable,trustworthy and profitable.

Thismeans turning away from the Silicon Valley model towards a more deft andinclusive approach that fosters innovation and, crucially, puts the human beingat the centre of the technology developed. It means turning away fromshort-term thinking and considering the long-term uses and impact of technologyinstead.

Crucially, a renewed focus on purpose need not come at the expense of profit. Developing technology requires investment and skills, and those that create technology need to be profitable to attract both. Yet the pursuit of purpose and profit are not mutually exclusive ambitions. "Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked”, notes Larry Fink, chairman and chief executive officer at Blackrock.

Related: From tapping to talking - three bumps in the road


for all

Toremain an engine of growth, development and positive change, technologydevelopment must place the human being at its centre. So, instead of replacingpeople with technology, we need to find ways to increase the opportunities for humankindthrough technology.

Forexample, there is a growing realisation that it is better to view AI as acollaborative technology rather than one which is liable to put you and yourcolleagues out of a job. This would see AI and machines, and the data insightsand processing power they make possible, augmenting human experience andexpertise. Robots or ‘cobots’, would support people performing repetitive and labour-intensiveroutines, rather than replacing them entirely on the factory floor.


that help put the trust back into tech

Toremain an engine of growth, development and positive change, the development oftechnology must place human beings at its center. Instead of replacing peoplewith technology, we need to find ways for it to augment and support humanactivity, creating opportunities for humankind. If this is to happen, then someground rules need to be agreed.

Firstly,technology must exist to support and develop the rights, knowledge andpotential of every individual. Every human has the right to privacy,protection, and freedom from coercion. Technology must be developed with theintention to further these fundamental human rights. Those that developtechnology should ensure they are not complicit in human rights abuses nomatter where they are geographically or where they sit in the technology supplychain.

Secondly,those who develop technology need to focus on the issues that are critical toour future and demand our urgent attention. Is the direction of large investmentand precious resources into connecting household appliances to the internet, forexample, as important as issues that more immediately address the climate, ourhealth, energy and water usage?

Thirdly,we must set a framework that guides how we use digital technology. IT systemsmust be sufficiently open to allow everyone to access and create innovation andvalue. And as AI becomes more prevalent, it must be used in such a way that wedon’t lose control of autonomous systems.

Finally,the development of technology should be undertaken iteratively. We are used toplanning everything. Yet in the high-tech and the exponential world, it isincreasingly difficult to plan. That's why we need to change notions of howbest to lead and move from a 'command and conquer' approach to one that favoursagility and cooperation.

Crucially,as technology finds itself under increasing scrutiny, it is up to us, thepeople that create and use it, to fight for it. It may seem that the task issimply too large, so starting small but starting right now is important.Because it’s only through our combined efforts that we can put trust back intotechnology.

Mark S. Wilson will present his keynote speech, ‘Putting the Trust Back into Technology’ at 10.20am on Wednesday 12th June at the AI Summit, London Tech Week.

Mark is a tech evangelist for Tech for Life, a non-profit organisation that champions the responsible creation and use of technology.

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