Title adapted from Shoshana Zuboff’s ground-breaking 1988 book
Last week I attended a Group Relations Conference in India. These events are always intense (this one even more so!) but they provide a unique opportunity to consider oneself with a human social system.
One of the things that occurred to me as we were exploring the role of the unconscious as it was playing out in the here and now (all psychobabble terms but in fact hugely important) was that there are multiple unconsciouses which operate as we live our dual analogue-digital lives. Carl Jung described what he called the collective unconscious which complements and influences all of our conscious thinking and actions as we participate within the human system. I believe that there is now in addition a digital unconscious which is emerging in the digital realm as the result of our digital interactions within the Social Machine and an even more powerful machine unconscious which is evolving in the artificial intelligences we are building. I drew the image below to try to illustrate my conjecture to the group – needless to say most didn’t understand.
In What Technology Wants co-founder of Wired Magazine and co-Chair of the Long Now Foundation Kevin Kelly talks about The Technium: A Living System of Technology which encompasses the entire system around technology – culture, art, social institutions, through to “the extended human”. In his latest blog post Kelly states that
For a while I’ve been intensely exploring generative AI systems, creating both text and visual images almost daily, and I am increasingly struck by their similarity to dreams. The AIs seem to produce dream images and dream stories and dream answers. The technical term is “hallucinations” but I think they are close to dreams. I’ve come to suspect that this similarity between dreams and generative AI is not superficial, poetic, or coincidental. My unexpected hunch is that we’ll discover that the mechanism that generates dreams in our own heads will be the same (or very similar) to the ones that current neural net AI’s use to generate text and images.
The foundational mode of the intelligence is therefore dreaming.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily agreeing with Kevin Kelly here nor am I buying in to the hype about machines hallucinating. What I am pointing out is that the machines are analyzing human data using human crafted algorithms and therefore there is something of our unconscious that is embedded in their emanations which is now being made explicit and visible. We can only refer to concepts and ideas in human terms (hence we anthroporphosize) and to describe what the machines are doing is almost like taking us in to our own unconscious (this is where the concept of Azimov’s Psychohistory comes in to play).
One way of accessing the collective human unconscious is through Social Dreaming, the practice of sharing, associating to and working with dreams in a matrix in order to identify social trends and social dynamics. As our machines are coming together and bringing our data with them it may well be that what we are seeing is a manifestation of the collective human unconscious expressed through the output of the machines – which may seem like hallucinations – but how can we know given the opaque nature of how they operate? And, if they have begun to go down that path then they are already moving beyond our realm of understanding.
The real challenge will come when they become able to acknowledge and recognise this unconscious as something different from a probabalistic algorithm, or are embodied, as the work of people like Rodney Brooks and so much of our Science Fiction (Humans, Blade Runner, Ex Machina) has shown us,
So what does this mean for us as humans?
Up until the recent advances brought about by the large language models such as ChatGPT talking with the average person about the advancing machine intelligence was like describing an elephant. Every person sees things that directly relate only to them just like the story of the Blind Man and the Elephant.
This relates as much to technologists as to everyone else as I’ve witnessed countless times. The most obvious to me was when
I heard a very notable “father” of the digital world speak at a conference and when asked what he would recommend about how to address the rise of pornography on the Web he responded “well just don’t look at it!”
Many of the people I’ve met who have built the machinery of the digital world are extremely naïve, building the tools because they can, not asking whether they should. When Geoffrey Hinton resigned from Google last week he commented
I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,
As with all kids in the candy shop scenarios if you give a scientist a problem and lots of funding they will develop new tools and techniques regardless of the potential consequences. Hinton and others like him saw only part of the Elephant without considering it as a whole animal let alone part of a herd.
Which brings in the question of ethics. Whilst some of the big companies have created Ethics Advisory Boards the reality is that much of the development work in the field of AI is now happening in the open source space where there is no supervision or oversight. These people still want to move fast and break things and the very nature of Ethics is designed to slow things down by asking difficult and challenging questions.
Governments and regulation are also designed to slow things down because politics and policy operates on human time which is analogue, messy and the very opposite of an efficient machine. Humans need time to process, and our relationships are based on what people like Anna Machin and Rachel Botsman call Trust Friction – the stickiness and the glue that underpins how human systems operate.
The whole point of human relationships is that they are not efficient, because they take time and brain power to develop and maintain. Trust needs friction. (Anna Machin)
Human systems are analogue and analogue takes time. In the analogue world:
- You can’t fire off a letter you need to write and post it
- you can do an online transfer you need to go to the bank
- you can’t immediately alter a design you need to redraw it
- you can’t just be friends with everyone you need to build trust through shared experiences which takes time.
Machines don’t want friction – it slows them down, makes things break and ruins their power to work ratio – i.e. “productivity”. The ultimate idea of this is the Paperclip Problem where smart machines instructed to make paper clips will consume all the resources in the universe (including us) to just make paper-clips.
With the advent of ChatGPT and it’s brethren the removal of friction within our human-machine interactions has now gone to the next level and smart AI is now being embedded in to pretty much all of our digital processes – just think of how many conversations your have and hear which involved technology of some sort.
So now I’d like to bring in a new analogy, the frog in the pot of soup as the temperature is gradually turned up.
Our human need to process and understand means that we as humanity have been sitting in the digital soup for at least half a century but in the first half of 2023 suddenly it is feeling a little uncomfortably warm.
As the soup heats up there are some who are going to want to jump out of the soup – there are some who going to boil and there are those who will adapt.
The questions now seem to me to be who each of these will be and what will happen in each case.
Let’s consider some options:
Firstly, those who want to leave. It may be too late but, as with the Luddites in the Industrial Revolution, there is much wisdom in what they have to say and perhaps an alternate reality has much to offer as it always has throughout the ages. There is something of this in Hari Seldon’s concept of building a Foundation on the furthest planet in order to separate itself from the chaos of the main system – an opportunity to isolate, slow down, reboot and recreate.
Secondly, those who are trapped. Sadly there is always a high cost to any radical change and many will find the “new world” frightening and overwhelming. Just one example is the rate of teenage girl suicide already. Along with many others I have spent the past three decades of my life working to understand the transition that is upon us and help people prepare for the change with minimal effect. Some have heeded the lessons, most have sat and enjoyed the warmer water oblivious to the dangers. I’m not sure anything can help these people any more as I think the rate of change is going to be too fast.
I think both of these groups will struggle and push back through both fear and anger and the manifestation of this could be dangerous.
Finally, there will be those who adapt, survive and thrive.
With all the noise about the technology and how fast it’s progressing or whether it should be paused or stopped the real point is what are the humans going to do about it? Therefore it is the third group I am most interested in and I believe that it is being led by the younger generation but needs to be supported and mentored by the 21st Elders who have memories of the analogue world and the value of its friction and temporal nature.
Some fear the AI Apocalypse and that non-Western (WEIRD) cultures may gain a technological advantage. This is problematic on so many levels particularly given that it is the minority-population WEIRD West that has created the culture of growth and the technologies themselves. Some alternative thinking might be precisely what is needed now and some less privileged cultures may, in fact, be better prepared for what is to come.
The history of automation is that we humans have invented machines to take away the dirty, dangerous and dull jobs … now we are taking away a whole host of others. These technologies can be used to solve the very challenging problems which confront us in the 21st Century and the sooner we learn to work constructively and creatively with the machines the sooner we will harness the power that is before us for good.
The more I feel people heading in one direction as a herd the more I want to go the other way and explore what is happening there – this is where the adaptive survivors will be.
Emergencies fast-forward historical processes. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. (Yuval Noah Harari)
For the past few years I have been delivering Digital Skills workshops to interested students at Goodenough College, but the travel restrictions of Covid 2020 means that I’m stuck in Australia and so, like everyone, we’ve had to come up with new solutions and ways to engage.
The flip side is that Covid has brought about ‘the digital moment’ and we are all now participating in probably the largest global experiment as we harness digital media to remain connected, to craft new ways of staying in business, and to keep the wheels of industry turning.
With this in mind Goodenough College Dean Alan McCormack, Alumni Director Hannah du Gray and I decided that it was the perfect time to reach out beyond the current student body to all of our Goodenough community around the world and offer them the opportunity to more consciously think about the digital tools that they work with, and begin to develop some real digital muscle in order to more safely and securely navigate and negotiate our lives online.
Thus was born our Digital Gymnasia, a series of workshops where the emphasis is on education, play, and skill building through conversation and coaching and where we can explore some of the questions and issues which arise in a safe and non-judgemental space.
The Ancient Greek Gymnasia were places for physical activity but also places for intellectual pursuits and philosophical discussion. The word gymnos comes from the Greek unclothed which implies not just nudity but also a vulnerability and a need to exercise in order to attain skills to better prepare for the world around. The Romans continued the idea of the gymnasia with their Baths and we still use the term for both exercise facilities but also schools.
As I thought of what to name the series of digital literacy workshops that have emerged over the past few months the idea of the gymnasia seemed most appropriate. What we need at this time is not something to cure an illness or seek treatment but a space within which to play and test the equipment around us in order to build our confidence, capacity and capability in using it to live better and more fulfilling lives. In short we need to exercise our digital muscles in order to both safely use the equipment and, even better, successfully compete in the digital games that now surround us.
We have become digital in the last few years (especially with our phones) as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means. (Doc Searls)
The tools of the Digital era have been gradually evolving but pre-Covid the legacy and stickyness of Industrial Age thinking has persisted – just consider the World Economic Forum’s idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. I would contend that whilst we still live in an ‘industrialised economy’ ever since the birth of the Internet and the Web we have been moving towards a Network Economy.
The Pandemic has provided both the need and the curiosity for many to explore the digital realm in new and unexpected ways. Up until now we have largely been retro-fitting the way we do things in the physical space in to the online environment – insisting on having conferences and events from 9 am t0 6 pm and not taking account of the affordances of the digital medium and how that impacts our emotional and mental needs or reactions. This is still happening but gradually we are becoming more confident and creative and what has surprised and delighted me is how creative people are becoming at working with the online tools – the democratisation of the digital space is enabling and embodying new creative solutions and expressions.
One example of this is Ruby Wax’s Frazzled Café which provides peer support meetings online. Ruby started her in person meetings at Marks and Spencer cafes but Covid has forced them to go online. When I asked her what she will do then some sort of ‘normality’ returns Ruby told me in no uncertain terms that the online Frazzleds will continue because they are so powerful and can reach so many people.
Ruby, and many like her have found the confidence to go online, to a space that they may not have felt comfortable operating in, but bit by bit they are experimenting and developing their digital muscle.
But as with all new exercises and fancy gym equipment it is often best to start off with an instructor, and that is what we are seeking to do with our Digital Gymnasia.
The format of Digital Gymnasia
Our first Digital Gymnasium focuses on the topic Digital 101, a session designed to explore how the socio-technical systems around us have evolved in order to understand where they are now in 2020 and imagine where they might be going. We focus on a brief history of information technologies coupled with some hands on exercises to determine peoples’ levels of digital literacy and awareness.
The second Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Digital Agora where we explore the world of online community spaces and how they are enabling us to remain connected despite the global lockdowns and quarantines. We begin by considering the affordances of digital interaction technologies and what benefits they provide as well as their limitations and consequences.
The third Digital Gymnasium focuses on Your Digital Brand and how we each craft our presence online. This session is built upon the work I have done over the past 2o years (and resulted in my PhD research, see here and here) which at the core considers how our lives online produce our ‘brand’. Our aim here is to really think about how we are perceived by others online.
The fourth and fifth Digital Gymnasia focus on Protecting Yourself Online and provides an overview of tools and techniques to better deal with online safely and security. Our aim is to get people actively engaged with their online security and more fully begin to understand the idea of digital identity.
The sixth Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Politics of Digital Technologies with an overview of how governments around the world are utilising digital surveillance technologies and systems in the name of Public Health. At the core of this is the concept of Trust which is multi-layered and an expression of our cultural norms and expectations. It is also a clear example of the lack of digital literacy and awareness in the Pubic Sphere.
The seventh Digital Gymnasium focuses on Seeing the World through Data – how data drives everything around us and why this is important. Data has been described as the new oil of the digital economy, but there is a lot more to it than that. In order to build digital muscle we need to understand what digital is made up of (think of how we monitor our diet through exercise) and data is the source. This workshop seeks to demystify the idea of data, information and knowledge to more effectively work with it as our digital systems evolve.
Our final Digital Gymnasium focuses on what being Born Digital means – how digital businesses differ from traditional bricks and mortar ones, but also how they are changing and what this means for the future of work, education, health care and many other aspects of our everyday lives.
These workshops are an opportunity for me and my colleague Leanne Fry (with whom much of this material has been developed and who has lived through the digital transformation of the past two decades with me) to reflect on the work we’ve done and to offer what we’ve learned to others in a way that we hope is useful, empowering and entertaining.
We would love you to join us.
If you are interested please just contact me.
“Knowledge is power. To scrutinize others while avoiding scrutiny oneself is one of the most important forms of power.” (Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information)
Recently I joined Tris Lumley and Baillie Aaron at New Philanthropy Capital’s Ignites Conference to talk about data. What was pleasing was that we had a room full of people genuinely interested in having a mature and robust conversation about data and it’s context, and that throughout the conference digital and technology pervaded. As Fran Perrin commented these issues which digital technologies raise are now becoming mainstream, and finally people are beginning to focus less on the technology and more on the skills, knowledge and resources that people need in order to work within the digital space.
I believe that we have now moved past the ‘digital’ age and we are entering the Age of Cognition, the age where everyone and everything, is rapidly being connected in to a Global Societal Mind, the ultimate Social Machine, where data is coming from all sources, not just digital. In December of this year a group of luminaries within the Internet/Web Worlds is coming together to celebrate the point in time where 50% of humanity is now online. As with all technologies there is a Faustian Bargain – whilst connectivity brings access to information, resources, communities and networks, underpinned by a disconnection to geography and place, it also brings forth challenges to individual privacy and liberty as the price to pay for security. The original vision of those who built the internet and the Web was to bring global connectivity to all humanity, but the consequences are only just beginning to be understood.
Amidst all of this progress the focus on the Machine is paramount, but what of the humans in this machine, and particularly those who lack the personal power and resources to push back and create some personal boundaries? To me this is this is why the Charity Sector and the practice of Philanthropy is so very important.
In May of this year I spoke at the Quilter Cheviot Charity Seminar (see my interview https://vimeo.com/276237074) and there were four key points that I made concerning our Sector:
- we need to recognise and appreciate how important we are, and the power that we have to represent the human in the digital age
- we need to be beneficiary, not funder, driven – we need to focus on the human needs of those we seek to help
- we need to lead the regulation rather than let the regulation lead us, precisely because we are beneficiary driven, and
- we need to embrace the emerging world of data as a positive challenge, not something to be afraid of, but rather something to harness but also to understand.
Phil-anthropy quite literally means “love” of “Man” and is traditionally interpreted as meaning the desire to promote the well-being of others through the giving of alms, or money to good causes.
As I see it the cause of humanity is the most important we currently have, in both the short and long term, and the three key challenges facing our very existence – which include Climate Change, Nuclear War and the rise of Artificial Intelligence – are those which should be just as important as the more immediate ones relating to everyday life.
Throughout history technology has been harnessed to address societal challenges, and in the 2000’s it was digital media that began to determine societal systems and processes. It changed business models, it changed expectations and provided hope for a better way to govern our societies. Many felt that by making information more open and accessible the power imbalance between the government and the governed would be redressed (see the Power of Information Report) and many governments professed to embrace the principles of the Open Data movement which sought to provide Transparency, Participation and Collaboration as a path to more open and accountable government. (For more on this see https://www.finance.gov.au/blog/2010/07/16/declaration-open-government/, https://opengovdata.org/ 8 Principles and https://www.opengovpartnership.org/open-government-declaration).
The promise of open data resulted in whole bureaucratic processes changing in the rush to publish public data, but sadly much of it was published in a way that was relatively useless (see the 2016 Open Data Report) where there developed a focus on the collection of data for its own sake, “just in case”, because one day, as our technologies become smarter and more powerful, the data collected would potentially be useful.
Underpinning all of this was the thinking that
What gets measured gets managed. (Peter Drucker)
If we could only gather all the data, measure everything that we can, and then apply smart algorithms and increasing processing and storage power, we could more effectively understand the world around us and solve the problems we face.
But do we all want to be managed? Where do we draw the line between privacy and security, between freedom and control, between dignity and insignificance, or perhaps irrelevance?
If Philanthropy has any role to play in the Age of Cognition it is, in my opinion, to fight to maintain the rights of human beings to retain their dignity, to recognise their value, and to maintain their sovereignty.
The more I have thought about this over the past couple of months the more the word Sovereignty keeps resonating in my mind.
Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies.
Historically we have thought of the word in terms of nation states or kingdoms, but as the individual becomes both more empowered and more measured it is the dynamic between the individual (in the libertarian sense) and the individual as a cog in the wheel of the Social Machine that for me is the central issue which will determine the lives of each and every one of us.
So, as we increasingly become more and more an integral part of the Social Machine how do we slow things down and take the time to think about how we design our systems – of government, society and community – to ensure both human dignity, but also human sovereignty?
In a very early Web 2.0 Conference Professor Genevieve Bell asked
What if we designed for data the way we design for people?
This question is the most important of our age, and as Bailley talked about her work in prisons, and the rising awareness of the value of personal data, the need for everyone – but particularly those working in the Charity Sector – to understand that link between data and these fundamental human values is crucial.
At a Royal Institution event I heard Professor Gina Neff make no bones about the fact that Artificial Intelligence is becoming social infrastructure. The values baked in to the algorithms and operating systems that underpin our societies will determine how authority is given, taken and utilised in the digitally mediated world.
It will determine who we are, how we live and how we treat each other.
We cannot sit idly by and allow corporations and governments to determine these values, it is our sector, with our focus on our fellow human beings, that must take the lead and put true phil-anthropy first.
In my next post I will explore in more detail some ideas for precisely how the Philanthropic sector can take on this leadership.
When everyone agrees on where the future is headed – especially when that destination is so far from our current reality – that’s not a sign of inevitability; it’s a sign that people have stopped thinking. A good time, perhaps, to hike out to some awkward, sideways headland where we can look things over from a contrary angle. (Lee Simons, Wired)
Last week I was hugely privileged to attend the Harvard Kennedy School to participate in their Leadership for the 21st Century programme, Chaos, Conflict and Courage.
I have long wanted to attend a Kennedy School course, particularly as ANZSOG (with whom I taught and researched for a number of years) follows the Harvard pedagogy, with the intimate format, case-based analysis, and working groups. The course was facilitated by Dr Tim O’Brien, himself a Harvard Alumni, who very ably crafted a safe learning space within which the 77 of us were able to both get to know each other as individuals, as well as to understand ourselves a little better.
The course builds on the Adaptive Leadership model developed by Professor Ronald Heifetz which articulates the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges, and from there describes a set of strategies, tools and tactics to address each. It also incorporates numerous elements of the Tavistock Institute’s Group Relations to enable individuals to understand their respective roles within the a broader organisational system, both in smaller teams and the plenary.
Four external presenters were brought in, each with their own unique perspectives drawn from the world of experience: Farayi Chipungu described her consulting experience with McKinsey; Dr Donna Hicks shared her work based on leading with dignity; Shannon McAuliffe told the story of her work with Roca Inc, and Hugh O’Doherty took us on a journey through the work he has done in peace negotiations globally.
I went to Harvard to soak up the experience of attending one of the world’s leading academic institutions, but also to learn as much as I could from every source that presented itself – the facilitators and presenters, my fellow classmates (one of who was Negar Tayyar, our first Intersticia Leadership Scholar), and of course, myself.
There was much I found extremely familiar about the course – how it was taught, the framing of exercises, the use of cases, and the exploration of individual as well as broader human issues. What made the Harvard experience special were two things: firstly, the calibre of highly intelligent, self-motivated and senior people from all walks of life and virtually every continent around the world; and, secondly the very safe container that Tim O’Brien created and held for us all to work in over the course of the five days.
As we explored the concept of Adaptive Leadership people gradually disconnected from their daily work roles and began to more reflectively explore themselves as leaders – they began to move from the dance to the balcony – one of my favourite coaching phrases! With this came the ability to unpack and more fully understand both the context and any personal stuck issues.
Each person had their own Aha! moment last week, some more profound than others, but regardless of how far along the personal learning journey each of us were, there were salient lessons for everyone as a 21C Leader.
Most people were from the public sector, but there were a number from the Third Sector, which, as I have written in numerous posts, I believe to crucial in championing the human in the world at the moment. Regardless, everyone was struggling with the complexity of the world around them, and the need for adaptability, agility and improvisation. This is where Adaptive Leadership comes in to its own, and where the skills taught at courses like this will be invaluable to all leaders.
However, as with so much of any education in the leadership space, and particularly for senior people, there was only a passing mention of technology (including data and digital) in its own right, let alone the socio-technical challenges which underpin so much of what is happening in the digital age.
As I found at ANZSOG this seems to stem from two things:
- there seems to be a tendency to regard technology issues as separate from the human and social issues, or at least secondary in some way; and
- many academics who teach leadership (and indeed most of the social-sciences) are ill equipped to address the socio-technical issues because they do not themselves understand them, at least this has been my experience up to date.
This is not a criticism, in fact it is a challenge, but one that needs to be addressed immediately.
Whilst we are focusing on giving the next generation the skills for tomorrow it is just as, if not more important, to help the leaders of today who are too often focusing on industrial age problems, often missing, or neglecting, the techtonic shifts that are happening underneath them. All industries, businesses and enterprises are changing, but we don’t necessarily know what that change will mean, and the more we take time out to sit in some awkward sideways headland and reflect and think, the better equipped we will be to meet what is coming at us.
This is the core of our Web Science challenge and why Web Science, in itself, is crucially important, but also unique. It is precisely because in Web Science we understand that
the Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web – we live in the age of the Social Machine where there are no boundaries between humans and our technologies.
As Marshall McLuhan said, way before the days of the ubiquitous internet and the Web,
We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.
Our tools and technologies are extensions of who and what we are, but most importantly
as the boundaries between our physical and digital existence increasingly blur, the need to understand, analyse and address the socio-technical challenges will be at the heart of the work of all leaders.
Therefore I believe that the first step for every 21C Leader – regardless of age or stage – is to much more proactively take it upon themselves to study the technologies which are now all around us, to understand where they have come from, and begin to articulate, or at least, explore, where they might be taking us. I had hoped that Harvard might be a little more advanced in this, but sadly not. They are not on their own however.
The second step for every 21C Leader follows on from what I wrote about in my last blog, and that is to figure out how to lead in new and different ways. Much of this is about standing aside and allowing the Web Generation to take the lead, whilst mentoring, coaching and moderating with the benefit of wisdom and experience, and maintaining the authority that is so important. In this they need to hold the space within which the important work needs to happen.
This is where I believe that Adaptive Leadership is ideally suited precisely because
- it sees leadership as a practice not a position
- it recognises that ongoing nature of the challenge of leading, not the problem
- it differentiates between leadership and authority
- it stresses the need to observe and interpret before any intervention
- it recognises the fluidity and ongoing evolution of the systems within which it exists
- it connects with purpose.
It also links to Robert Greenleaf’s ideas around moral authority and Servant Leadership.
Moral authority is another way to define servant leadership because it represents a reciprocal choice between leader and follower. If the leader is principle centered, he or she will develop moral authority. If the follower is principle centered, he or she will follow the leader. In this sense, both leaders and followers are followers. Why? They follow truth. They follow natural law. They follow principles. They follow a common, agreed-upon vision. They share values. They grow to trust one another.
The Leadership for the 21C programme went a long way towards articulating how this moral authority can flow from the Adaptive Leadership framework, and the course was of great value in many other ways.
I would like to challenge the Harvard Kennedy School to itself take the lead and by stepping in to their own authority recognise and integrate the Social Machine into all of their leadership courses, particularly this one.
In a world where we are continually being forced to assert our human values whilst we are bombarded by our screens the most important thing that any leader can do is to protect them with all of the moral authority they can muster, for all of our sakes.
Last week in an article in the Financial Review renown businessman David Gonski talked about the commoditisation of the professions.
Let’s be professional and fight artificial intelligence. (David Gonski)
Gonski is right on a number of fronts, but very wrong on others. He is totally right in that the humans in the workplace need to be human, and deliver ideas with humanity. However, he is wrong about fighting artificial intelligence.
It is too late.
AI may well be the best chance humanity has got to survive. It may be our only hope.
We have extended both our minds and bodies with technology since we walked from the savannah. Our latest invention, artificial intelligence, is set to revolutionise many of the socio-technical systems we rely on every day, and in all likelihood we underestimate the impact that it is already having, and the speed with which it is progressing. It is not the AGI (artificial general intelligence or Strong AI) that is disrupting our world, it is the many and various Weak or narrow AI that is good at doing specific things, and upon which we increasingly rely and daily feed as the Social Machine.
It is the humans that are changing how the world works, not the machines.
This is one reason why we are having our Brave Conversations conference in Canberra in April.
We do need to talk, we need to talk openly and honestly, and we need to talk now.
Why? Because …
AI and robots, like Climate Change, aren’t waiting for us humans to get our heads around the world that is changing, they are marching ahead regardless.
Let’s get a sense of what is going on.
Intelligence has always underpinned human progress and driven our curiosity and ingenuity, and it has been as much a force for good as for evil. With the assistance of our clever intelligence systems – computers and the data we are feeding them – these are just a few of the things that are becoming real in the twenty first century:
All of this is happening because we have developed information systems which enable us to work with data, information and knowledge in new and more powerful ways.
Whilst these things are not yet a part of everyday life they are coming.
As William Gibson said
The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. (The Economist, December 4, 2003)
That distribution is what is going to determine the future of humanity, because it is going to be those with access to the smartest and most powerful technologies who have the power. We are already seeing that with Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.
I am listening to many of these conversations as I travel around the world, and it is time that we Australians actively engaged in it, bravely, with courage, and a little bit of daring. We need to consider what we can bring to the table that is different, that is uniquely ours, and not something that we are trying to emulate from elsewhere.
What do we do differently? Here is a short list to start off with:
- we have the tyranny of distance – our distance from the Northern Hemisphere, the US and Europe means that we often watch what is going on via our screens, rather than experience it directly. This both mediates our response but also gives us the opportunity to be less reactive and more objective;
- this distance also means that we are often little more than a sales channel for the multinationals who do very little research here, but we are a great test market;
- we can be innovative, but I believe that most of all we are fast followers – we see how others have done things and we quickly embrace new ideas, adopt new technologies, and then we play with them, alter and amend them, and apply them to new problems;
- we are a young country which is also an island – as a white nation we have never been invaded, however we have built this by invading the lands of others. This gives us a juxtaposition of security versus insecurity,;
- we have amongst us the original custodians of this land, who have, over the last 60,000 years. accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience about the natural world and the place of humanity in it;
- we have a resilient and robust economy, which seems to be able to weather global crises;
- we have a stable system of government (despite the instability in our politics, and an appalling lack of leadership) built upon the foundations of the Westminster system which itself has endured for centuries;
- we have a strident multi-culturalism and a determination to embrace and accept ideas, cultures and creeds of all kinds;
- we have a young mindset which sits on a very old, ancient and fragile land;
- we inhabit the fringes of our continent, clinging to the edges and are often at the mercy of nature at her harshest with fire, floods and storms. Through this we have a respect for nature which I think other places are gradually losing.
These are the things that I believe we can contribute to the global conversation because they impact on each and every one of us in our day to day lives.
People have asked me what the outcomes of our Brave Conversations will be.
To be honest, I have no idea. But, nor should I. That is not my role. My role is to get the right people in the room together and then let them toss ideas around in a safe and respectful manner, to explore connections and gain insights that they might not otherwise do.
But there are a number of themes that will emerge:
- what is the role of government in the digital age? At present governments around the world are struggling just to keep up, let along provide a framework within which the Social Machine is developing. This is what Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt saw when they went to Gordon Brown and created Web Science.
- what is the economic value of a human as capitalism declines and democracy is in question?
- what is the importance of Web Science, which, as a multi-disciplinary field bringing together the Social and the Machine together, is needed, now more than ever. Whether it is Asimov’s PsychoHistory or something else, the Web has changed the world, and the world has changed the Web. The world and the Web are symbiotic. Web Science considers all actors – human and technical, individuals, governments and enterprise – it is humanity in motion.
I asked Professor Susan Halford about the importance of Web Science and she responded thus:
Finding ourselves in this position raises questions that are both profoundly important and difficult to answer.
- How do we ensure that the Web benefits everyone?
- And what are the business and governance models that would underpin this?
- How do we deal with conflicts of interest, for example between openness and intellectual property, the right to anonymity and policing cybercrime, data based business models and ownership of our own data?
- Artificial intelligence and human accountability?
- As the Web continues evolve in networks of social, technical, legal, political and economic relations we find that none of the existing areas of academic research are able to fully address the profound questions that are raised.
- Whilst computer scientists understand the technologies, psychologists how they impact on human thinking, lawyers understand the legal challenges that arise and sociologists the ways that family life, communities and social identities are changing, any one discipline can only provide a partial answer.
Web Science was established for this reason: to ask the difficult questions, and establish the interdisciplinary capacity to answer them fully.
In these times of rapid change we need leaders who do bring the human skills as Gonski has said, but more importantly, we need leaders who are watching the horizon, who understand the implications of these powerful technologies and appreciate both the risks and the benefits, who can anticipate some of the potential consequences, and who are open to explore humans and society in new ways.
Our technologies are redefining who and what we are. There is no stopping that and, thanks to AI and all that it enables, the humans who walk this planet in 100 years will be very different from those of us who are here now. We have a responsibility to at least try to comprehend what is going on, and to proactively make choices that will benefit future generations, not stick our fingers in the dyke and hope that it will just go away.
Some may doubt that all of this is happening, and many may want to put their heads in the sand. But, as with Pascal’s Wager, it would be foolish to not at least make provision, just in case.
Come join us and make your own adventure (to quote Pia Waugh).
Come and be brave!