Wednesday, 30 October 2019
Deep Conversation at Ci2019
On 26 September 2019 the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia sounded an alarm. The cause of its concern was Australia’s slipping in the ranking of 63 nations on the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) World Digital Competitiveness Index.
The Index compares digital competitiveness against three key overall criteria: knowledge, technology and future readiness. While Australia slipped only one place in the overall survey, from 13th to 14th, CEDA warned that we were way down the rankings in more than a few key areas, including:
The IMD survey rankings showed regional powers like China, India and even Indonesia coming fast up the list, but that its top five countries remained unchanged from the 2918 survey: The United States, Singapore, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland. In analysing the survey, the IMD highlighted how each of these economies were, in different ways suiting their own needs and priorities, highly friendly for knowledge generation, skills and technology and, above all future readiness. Effectively, they are more ready than other nations to ride the next big waves of technological advance, and government and business are geared to make that happen.
One IMD criterion was very telling: country shares of robots in industry, education and R and D. The survey found that three-quarters of the world’s robots in these areas are concentrated in just five countries, China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Germany. In all three areas, China is way out in front, including having one-quarter of all the world’s industrial robots. Meanwhile, Australia barely troubles the scorers, with the IMD Index indicating we are stronger in human terms such as education and training, not least attracting international students who return home to improve their own countries’ future readiness.
CEDA’s response to these findings is simple:
We need a stronger national conversation around how R&D and adoption by business of new technology can deliver broader opportunities and benefits to the community.
“In reality R&D and investment in technology will underpin Australia’s future prosperity.
“It will help drive productivity that in turn will help drive higher wages.
If only it were that simple. Government and business investment in R and D, and government facilitation of such investment through policy and programmes, is just one challenge of improving our future readiness for disruptive technological and consequential social and economic upheavals.
That’s why, in April, Creative Innovation 2019 (ci2019) convened in Melbourne with the sweeping theme, Human Intelligence 2.0 – A Collective Future? How will we manage the transition?
This year’s conference was built on nearly a decade of Creative Innovation conferences. Like them it looked at the technological opportunities and challenges of digital and robotic invention, innovation and disruption. Like them its over 1500 participants were reminded constantly about the exponential increase in the pace of change, typified by Moore’s Law, the rule of thumb that says the processing power of computers – and therefore the capacity for computers to perform ever more complex functions – increases every two years.
But this year’s conference had a difference. It focused less on the potential of whizz-bang technology and more on its implications for mankind as a species, as a conglomerate of civil societies, and as social and economic beings.
It asked serious questions about whether we, the human race, and our social, governmental and economic institutions, are prepared for upheavals to come; and what is needed to ensure that technological progress in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics benefits the many and not just the few, that billions around the world are not bypassed or thrown on the scrapheap due to the rapidity of that progress.
And it caused us to ask a profound question: can humanity’s own intelligence and creativity keep up with the machines we originally created?
To lead the conversation, ci2019 brought in experts and thought leaders not only from Australia, but around the world, some of the best and brightest academic, government and business brains imaginable. They included:
Through three days of master classes, deep conversations, plenary sessions, a dinner debate and Hot Spot pop-up seminars, presenters and participants engaged in lively dialogue and debate about what human intelligence is now, what it can be, and how it – and we can make the transition to a future where machines and data are partners in our existence rather than mere creatures of our human intellects.
Ci2019 Delegates by location:
Ci2019 Delegates by industry sectors:
The IMD digital competitiveness report identified the STEM academic sector – sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics – as a crucial area in which Australia is lagging compared to developed and developing countries around the world. It’s an area in which women traditionally haven’t participated equally with men, and in which women’s voices are never heard enough.
To respond to these failings a unique Ci2019 event, Go Girl, Go Global, brought several hundred girls and young women to the conference to hear about the latest trends and developments in STEM and Human Intelligence 2.0, and gain some knowledge and tools to give themselves the best advantage for their future careers. The aim was to give every young woman attending the ability to leave the event feeling inspired, confident, prepared – and above all, excited for the future and their ability to make a meaningful difference in society.
As a conference event Go Girl, Go Global was a great success. But if it persuaded just one young woman to actively pursue studies and a career in STEM, instead if finding real and imagined barriers to getting involved, it will have achieved a lasting benefit going way beyond the conference.
After the conference closed, all involved came away with greater understandings and fresh insights. Many will have had their own assumptions and presumptions challenged – indeed, disrupted – by presenters and other delegates. For many, new networks were formed by strangers becoming friends, sharing common ideas and interests and informing how they themselves may influence mankind’s digital and technological future.
It isn’t possible to record every observation and insight that emerged from Ci2019. But it is possible to summarise a few of the key insights from the three days, that are messages to politicians and business leaders, as well as to the academics and experts who make questions such as these their life’s work.
Here are a few of the headline insights and thoughts that directly or indirectly flowed from the conference sessions and presentations. They don’t necessary reflect any one speaker or even sets of speakers, but they bubbled up from the conversations sparked session by session, and speaker by speaker.
It’s too easy to try and put digital and technological disruption, AI and robotics in a silo, to be dealt with in isolation from everything else around us.
But that’s simply not possible. Humanity’s collective future depends on how we respond to a whole array of scientific, economic and social challenges.
Above all, how we confront and deal with anthropogenic climate change affects almost every strand of human activity, including the technological and digital worlds. Conversely, rapid advances in these areas can and should make mankind’s climate change challenges easier to manage, and go much further than we can today to mitigate risk and evolve towards a truly low or no-carbon economy.
But in general, traditional silo-based approaches to policy-making and problem-solving no longer work. They are obsolete. If Human Intelligence 2.0 is going to be a reality, keeping pace with digital and technological evolution, we need to ensure our own capacity for absorbing information, learning and innovating can be based on an awareness and understanding of everything around us.
In other words, in the future even experts must become generalists.
We have seen in recent decades that a relative few can control the digital revolution – think of the likes of Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Musk.
An exponentially-increasing digital and economic future risks being controlled, and run to the benefit, of those who are equipped to ride the wave, whether that be because of their education, expertise, or wealth.
Knowledge is power, just as wealth is power. If the future, including Human Intelligence 2.0, is to benefit all humanity, it must not be simply the preserve of those who possess knowledge and wealth. Those who have these – the new power elites – have a duty and responsibility to reach out, and reach down, to ensure that everyone and every nation has the opportunity to be full and active partners in the future.
This includes politicians and policy-makers working with businesses and experts to determine who best to equip their citizens to not only cope in the future, but thrive. In advanced economies such as Australia’s, that means encouraging young people to embrace careers in STEM, and not treat these crucial areas of activity as the sole property of tech-heads, nerds and geeks.
It also means ensuring access to the future is blind to socio-economic status, race and especially gender.
It may well be that, in Western nations especially, democracy and political institutions need to adapt to survive.
When the world is so interconnected digitally in the Age of the Internet, when machines potentially can have minds of their own and process far more data and information than can human minds, can parliaments of men and women, mere human beings, truly represent the society they are elected to represent?
Can our politicians and political leaders who are not “technocrats” effectively deal with the ethical and social questions in a world where those who control access to social media are more powerful than governments or national leaders.
When we have so many career politicians, with limited personal and career experiences in the “real” world, can we rely on them to use good judgment in understanding the complex and hugely difficult issues that digitisation, AI and automation are bringing, let alone find effective solutions to the problems that come with those issues?
And when we are so digitally interconnected, and will become more so, what does that mean for the privacy of our own thoughts but of our data and even our personal identities?
Democracy can survive in the digital and technological future, but it will need an effort. If that effort isn’t made, then not only the world’s capital but power will be concentrated in the hand of a very elite few who are unaccountable to the people.
Yet politicians and governments won’t become obsolete in a hurry. Arguably, they may become even more important rather than less. It is they, on behalf of their people, who can dictate the pace and rate of technological change, including putting some areas of change out of bounds to the extent necessary to preserve social structures and cohesion, and to ensure reasonable opportunities for all their citizens to look forward to meaningful lives, careers and jobs.
The challenge of Western democracies will be to strike the right balance between technological progress on the one hand and human dignity on the other. If we fail to get it right, there’s a real risk democracy itself may succumb to technocratic authoritarianism, and billions of people will be marginalised or totally excluded from the benefits of progress.
In the future machines must work for and with us, not we for them.
It follows that human culture – or indeed cultures – and our beliefs, aspirations and values will still matter in the technological future.
Not just in Australia but worldwide, we need thoughtful, ongoing conversations about how we as human society maintain our diversity of culture and outlooks as digital interconnections increasingly makes the world we live in more interdependent and homogenous. We must continue to strive to accept and reset differences between both individuals and peoples, and ensure the machines and data exchanges we invent and innovate do likewise.
Similarly, we must strive to ensure that the future has an ethical framework that ensures the relationships between people and technology are positive, harmonious and fair. This is not simply a matter of applying Asimov’s Laws of Robotics which, as Dr Finkel pointed out to Ci2019, effectively apply to human laws as well.
It is about defining the terns of engagement between mankind and machine, determining who owns and controls access to data, and ensuring that rules of behaviour applying in the human world – such as it being morally wrong to physically or mentally harm others – apply equally and enforceably in the digital world. AI may eventually change the world beyond recognition, but it will and must be humans who will continue to make the rules.
The IMD digital competitiveness survey marked Australia down for business agility, and it’s become something of a cliché to say that businesses must adapt, must try harder, must run ahead of new and future realities.
Yet the cliché is true. Our businesses, and indeed capitalism as we know it, have evolved over centuries. Their structure and regulation owe more to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than the twenty-first and beyond.
To stay relevant into the future, businesses and government service providers must not only ride the technological curve to maximise viability and profitability, but they must use innovation to benefit their customers in terms of efficiency, convenience and offering goods and services relevant to their needs.
But they also have responsibilities to their employees, especially those who may be displaced by changes such as accelerated robotic automation. A business’s human capital must always remain more important than its financial or technological capital, and staff deserve and expect to be treated with respect and dignity in times of change and transition.
Governments, too, need to stay ahead of the curve. Policies and regulation need to anticipate technological and digital trends to facilitate what is beneficial to their human communities and prevent or mitigate what is not. As CEDA pointed out in responding to the IMD digital competitiveness survey, government also has a key role in facilitating investment in capital and R and D that equips businesses and the private sector to embrace the future.
Getting the balance right is the key: over-regulation is just as bad, if not worse, than a free market open slather. And politicians need to understand that simply pouring money into new technology and R and D is not an end in itself, and how taxpayers’ money is used matters far more than how much they spend. The quality of spend is what matters, not the quantity.
Persuading opinion poll-driven politicians seeking election or re-election of that is, however, another matter.
It’s important for governments, especially in liberal economies, to plan and regulate with a light touch, and give entrepreneurs and businesses the greatest possible freedom to be creative, innovative and generate wealth for all citizens. But governments, and the welfare safety nets they administer, should also look out for those who are, or are at risk of being, left behind. If that means redistributing so-called “middle class” welfare to those who most truly need support, that should be considered even if it causes politicians political pain.
In democratic countries, electoral cycles tend to run between three to five years. Politicians once elected start thinking – almost straight away – about how to get re-elected. Too often that means avoiding topics that might worry or upset voters, of which a future with greater digitisation, automation and AI is definitely one.
What Member of Parliament with an eye to keeping his or her seat is willingly going to talk about change that could cost people their livelihoods or dignity? Only a few very courageous ones. As a result, electoral cycles stifle and distort public discourse on very difficult and complex matters around our technological future, and human intelligence’s role in it.
Similarly, the mainstream media don’t have the time or resources to go more than superficially into these issues. They sensationalise, oversimplify and, whether intentionally or not, distort reality or create fear to sell newspapers or win ratings. And as for social media, the aggressive, polemic nature of engagement, and the constant savaging of points of view different to one’s own, means the global community of the Internet is no place for considered, rational discussion of the future.
But if the future is be in the hands of more than the elites, we must rise above the limitations of public discourse as they stand. We all need to be eligible to take part in vital conversations about our future and our roles in it. These questions are too important to leave to the politicians and the elites.
Events like Ci2019 help, but they aren’t ends in themselves. They must be part of a broader effort to converse, debate and share insights and ideas that transcend the limitations of politics and the media. There are no simple or easy answers to how that is best done. But we much have those conversations and determine how best to have them in inclusive and respectful settings.
Perhaps shifting our culture to encourage politicians to think beyond the next election – not just the electoral cycle but even decades ahead – and ensuring that public discourse generally is more open, respectful and tolerant of different views and opinions, is something that’s too important to leave to our leaders and elites.
That level of discourse characterised Ci2019, as it has throughout the whole Creative Innovation series of conferences. If there was one truly deep insight that could be taken away from Melbourne in April 2019, it would be that.
 A robot must:
In the event of a conflict, the first rule trumps the second, and the second rule trumps the third.
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