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By James Kobielus (@jameskobielus)
Economic prosperity is the dream of every society. In the 21st century, we’re seeing wealth come to developing nations everywhere. It’s bringing long life expectancies, educational opportunities, and middle-class comforts to people who’ve never known any of this before.
Prosperity is also spreading advanced technologies far and wide. Though few societies are eager to return to pre-digital lifestyles, many people are uncomfortable with the rate of change, the mind-boggling complexities, and the unanticipated downsides of the technologically accelerated new world culture. This trend is stoking popular backlash against disruptive technologies such as big data analytics, cognitive computing, and artificial intelligence (AI).
Call these “first-world problems” if you will, but people everywhere have legitimate concerns about technology’s impacts on their cultures, communities, jobs, and private lives. It seems that more people are apt to portray technology as a prime scapegoat for all the bewildering forces reshaping their lives for better or worse. In other words, some people see technology as a “disruption” in the older, more pejorative sense of the term, rather than as a net boon for humanity in the more positive Silicon Valley spin.
If you’re in Silicon Valley, you should at least feel a bit nervous that some people regard your life’s work as the cause of their problems, rather than a path to a better, brighter future. Speaking of the Valley, one of its primary thought leaders, futurist Tim O’Reilly, recently sounded the alarm on this issue. In a recent interview, he stated the following: “What I’ve noticed is people increasingly blame technology, whether it’s gentrification in San Francisco, or the fear of rogue AI, or the working conditions of the on-demand economy. Tech is increasingly being painted as a villain.”
O’Reilly is a big booster of AI, but I couldn’t help noticing that this is the only disruptive technology he specifically singles out as the source of popular apprehension. If you regard the term “AI” as a catch-all that includes cognitive computing and big-data analytics, I agree with him that the industry needs to be sensitive to these concerns. In fact, I stated as much in this recent TechTarget column, with respect to the potential for AI-driven systems to invade privacy, be weaponized, addict emotionally vulnerable people, and otherwise contribute to undesirable societal consequences.
One of the things I found interesting in O’Reilly’s discussion was the notion that popular sentiment is constantly toggling between dystopian and utopian visions of AI’s disruptive potential. He attaches the pithy name of “WTF economy” to this bipolarity. “WTF is a great phrase,” he says, “because it can be an expression of wonder, or it can be an expression of dismay or disgust.”
To accentuate the positive pole of this vision, O’Reilly proposes what he calls the “Next:Economy” paradigm. This is a vaguely socialistic scenario in which AI-fueled technological innovations drive greater process automation throughout the economy while at the same time fostering greater human “augmentation.” This is the utopian vision of an online economy in which a never-ending flow of frictionless, on-demand, algorithmic transactions makes everybody richer, smarter, more productive, more creative, and fulfilled. In this vision, “companies…have more than profit at the heart of their model. They have a societal benefit.”
In an article earlier this year, O’Reilly hints vaguely at guidance for societal movers and shakers who seek to bring this data-driven utopia to fruition. However, he gives no indication as to how one might use AI or any other technological enabler to ensure that an organization’s business model can generate a never-ending stream of “societal benefit”–apart from the usual advantages that flow from a vibrant, innovative, and free marketplace (with or without AI).
I’m not philosophically opposed to O’Reilly vision. I agree with him on the potential for data-driven technologies to help national and regional economies to move in this direction. But if you’re a working technology professional, it can be hard to identify what, if anything, you should be doing differently to respond to these popular concerns regarding disruption (in the negative sense).
Near as I can tell, O’Reilly’s vision seems to be calling for such technological enablers as cloud-first business platforms, open data, agile collaboration systems, loosely coupled microservices, data-driven next best actions, self-service personalization, and experience optimization. However, many companies have already invested heavily in those and other technologies as the building blocks of their digital business models. Many of those same organizations have also taken privacy, security, governance, and risk compliance mandates to heart and enforce them on an enterprise-wide basis.
It seems to me that, taken to its logical extreme, O’Reilly’s vision calls for some sort of algorithmic resource that calculates societally optimal outcomes and drives orchestrated next-best-action scenarios to deliver those outcomes automatically and universally. And that, in turn, would presuppose some sort of societal regulatory regime for defining what those societally sanctioned outcomes might be.
But I doubt that O’Reilly would actually take it to that extreme. His vision is actually more “invisible hand” in its emphasis on ensuring that online marketplaces are structured to achieve these outcomes without need for state intervention or heavy-handed regulation.
And that’s the proper orientation. As societies across the planet join the so-called “first world,” they will all evolve their economies toward this algorithmically driven model. As very different national cultures move in this common direction, we shouldn’t dismiss people’s fears surrounding the disruptions, dislocations, and disorientations that accompany this migration.
But we shouldn’t buy into the alarmist notion that somehow “technology” in the abstract is the source of these problems or that some societies will inevitably suffer in the process. As the world economy races more deeply into the economic fabric of the 21st century, each society must find its own way of ensuring that its people benefit from this trend to the maximum extent feasible.