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.
The 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.
Much of this data is generated to satisfy our increasingly mobile and connected lives. The Internet of Things (IoT) is hurtling at such a pace that forecasts of the total number of connected devices in the immediate future are seemingly out of date as soon as they are published.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.
It is also transforming manufacturing, which finds itself in the early stages of an era of business transformation that will rival the impact of the Industrial Revolution. This time however, the transformation will come from innovations in additive manufacturing, or 3D, printing, possibly the biggest leap in manufacturing innovation since the assembly line.
Indeed, such is the potential from technology that, for many, it serves as a universal panacea, commanding near blind faith in its ability to solve all the world’s problems. Yet, as John Powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, succinctly puts it, “technology will not save us.”
The same technologies that offer such promise also present great risks, and the world 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 to unforeseen, unintended and highly dangerous consequences.
Until very recently, for example, the stance of large social media sites has been to claim 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 US legislation, namely section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Yet this same law, which absolves social media firms of any responsibility for the content they host, has allowed fake news and misinformation to emerge and then spread across their platforms. The freedom that was perhaps naively enshrined in legislation has encouraged a free-for-all fight on social media.
In some cases, consequences have malicious behaviour at their root, as technology has been developed without sufficient attention being paid to how it might be abused. It only takes a few bad actors to manipulate technology and put it to destructive 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.
Putting 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.
Looking ahead, to build a company for the long-term optimising for profit alone is not enough. Tech leaders must seek a balance between three bottom lines, so their organisations are sustainable, trustworthy and, yes, profitable. While the function or direction of one organisation will of course differ to another, all those that embrace tech for life would share a common purpose in being sustainable, trustworthy and profitable.
This means turning away from the Silicon Valley model towards a more deft and inclusive approach that fosters innovation and, crucially, puts the human being at the centre of the technology developed. It means turning away from short-term thinking and considering the long-term uses and impact of technology instead.
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.
Tech for all
To remain an engine of growth, development and positive change, technology development must place the human being at its centre. So, instead of replacing people with technology, we need to find ways to increase the opportunities for humankind through technology.
For example, there is a growing realisation that it is better to view AI as a collaborative technology rather than one which is liable to put you and your colleagues out of a job. This would see AI and machines, and the data insights and processing power they make possible, augmenting human experience and expertise. Robots or ‘cobots’, would support people performing repetitive and labour-intensive routines, rather than replacing them entirely on the factory floor.
Principles that help put the trust back into tech
To remain an engine of growth, development and positive change, the development of technology must place human beings at its center. Instead of replacing people with technology, we need to find ways for it to augment and support human activity, creating opportunities for humankind. If this is to happen, then some ground rules need to be agreed.
Firstly, technology must exist to support and develop the rights, knowledge and potential of every individual. Every human has the right to privacy, protection, and freedom from coercion. Technology must be developed with the intention to further these fundamental human rights. Those that develop technology should ensure they are not complicit in human rights abuses no matter where they are geographically or where they sit in the technology supply chain.
Secondly, those who develop technology need to focus on the issues that are critical to our future and demand our urgent attention. Is the direction of large investment and precious resources into connecting household appliances to the internet, for example, as important as issues that more immediately address the climate, our health, energy and water usage?
Thirdly, we must set a framework that guides how we use digital technology. IT systems must be sufficiently open to allow everyone to access and create innovation and value. And as AI becomes more prevalent, it must be used in such a way that we don’t lose control of autonomous systems.
Finally, the development of technology should be undertaken iteratively. We are used to planning everything. Yet in the high-tech and the exponential world, it is increasingly difficult to plan. That’s why we need to change notions of how best to lead and move from a ‘command and conquer’ approach to one that favours agility and cooperation.
Crucially, as technology finds itself under increasing scrutiny, it is up to us, the people that create and use it, to fight for it. It may seem that the task is simply 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 into technology.
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.