Of Technology and Humanity

Many of us live with a growing unease about how technology will change the humanness of humanity. What tasks and jobs will be replaced by automation? Does artificial intelligence eat away at the exercise of human judgement? How much of society will keep pace with advances of technology?

Technology and human values was the theme of this week’s Techonomy 15 conference. In his opening remarks Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick described it like this: “We have to make judgements about what is right and what is wrong as we enter this world of technology immersion.”

In a session titled Gods in Boxes, Orin Boiman, CEO of Magisto, noted how algorithms control two important things in our lives, search and notifications. The fact that he would identify these as key parts of our lives does in itself speak to the changes that have come with technology.

One example of the influence of algorithms is the Facebook feed. Adam Mosseri, who manages that feed, was on stage at the conference and described the priorities of Facebook’s algorithms:

  1. Connect with family and friends
  2. Inform people about the world around them
  3. Provide fun, entertaining content.

The goal of the feed is to provide the content that each user is most likely to read, to like, to comment on. But how successful is this? Personally I don’t find the algorithm driven feed any better than the early stage chronological feed. And, like search results, it is probably self-reinforcing. Move an item to the top of the queue and it will in fact get more likes, more comments.

Algorithms without human values may have limited usefulness. One example is in human resources where the predictive powers of an algorithm might in fact lead an employer down a path that is illegal. “You might find out that a piece of software you bought is racist,” Boiman noted.

auto assembly lineJames Manyika of McKinsey & Company presented the findings of the consulting firm in a study of the future automation of work. He offered some moderation from the more common doomsday forecasts of what technology will do to the labor market. “Wholesale automation of jobs is unlikely, but middle-skill jobs could be replaced at twice the rate of recent decades.” He further noted, “45% of tasks could be automated but only 5% of jobs.”

A more disruptive vision of the future was offered by Cisco Executive Chairman John Chambers who predicted that 80% of American enterprise that exists today will not exist in 10 years. He suggested that we will see the day when a billion dollar enterprise has two employees, a CEO and CIO, while sales, production, legal and engineering are outsourced.

There are many areas where technology holds great promise for improving our lives. Among those raised at the conference were examples in healthcare where giving people the ability to monitor themselves and identify warning signs potentially creates a healthcare system focused on prevention rather than just treatment. It may also offer the solution to the need to increase food production without destroying the environment through such things as climate-stabilized indoor agriculture and city farms.

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But it is pretty clear that society doesn’t change at the same pace that technology is advancing. And technology has increased the spread of inequality. For example, according to Eileen Guo of Impassion Afghanistan, there are 1.2 million Internet users in that country which has a population of 30 million. In the U.S., Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said 20% of households do not have access to high-speed Internet. The unconnected slide further and further from the connected. Think for example of the implications for education and what that means in an economy where education is vital to developing the skills that will be required to attain and hold a job in the future.

Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns the Futurespoke of the importance of assuring that the benefits of technology advances are more widespread. He used the historical example of Henry Ford who insisted on paying good wages so that workers could buy his cars. “If we accept that not only the top of the zip curve needs to be funded, if we accept that lots of people are valuable, we might solve a big looming problem.” Lanier said.

He added that we think of AI algorithms as being able to do more than they can really do. As an example he pointed to automated language translators. Do they eliminate the need for human translators? No. In fact they couldn’t exist without them. The programs were based on the work of millions of human translators and will continue to need that input or fall out of date. “Let’s pay people who contribute,” he said.

Virtually no one sees where in the United States the leadership will come from to build a strategy for the changes that are likely coming to our economy. Kirkpatrick talked about a football field of Presidential candidates whose knowledge of the impact of digitalization on the future of the economy is about what you would expect from a football player. Of the four or five Presidential debates that have been held thus far, nary a word of this has been spoken.

(Archive video of Techonomy 15 is available on Livestream.)

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2 Responses to Of Technology and Humanity

  1. The digital divide is a very real thing. There’s such a push to drive students to use technology, and yet a substantial numbers of households don’t have Internet access, and many students do not have personal computers. Even if a laptop were supplied by a school district, so many other factors go into how to best use the technology and who else in the house might use it and for what purposes. There’s no easy answer in how to catch up with how tech is overtaking our lives, for better and for worse. On a lighter note, I get annoyed how the FB algorithm somehow decides to display different updates in my feed depending on whether I am using my phone, laptop, or tablet.

    Liked by 2 people

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