Many experts – and many articles in Computer Weekly – have warned of the potential for social and cultural disruption and unrest as a result of the digital revolution. Does it feel to you, too, that we’re increasingly reaching a tipping point where this could happen?
Only this week, we’ve had the UK government unveil plans for a new strategy for internet safety, aiming to “encourage” rather than force internet companies to be more responsible in their attitudes to “fake news”, online abuse and terrorist material.
This comes soon after Uber was attacked by Transport for London for allegedly using software to avoid regulation – part of the reason for Uber having its taxi licence withdrawn in the capital. The motor trade is still reeling from Volkswagen’s software-based abuse of vehicle emissions testing.
And then there are the ongoing debates – in government and in business – around data protection and privacy; nation state cyber security attacks; artificial intelligence and its potential impact on jobs; the lack of diversity in the tech workforce (and the sexism all-too often associated with it); the list goes on.
There’s no doubt that awareness of the risks and downsides of technology is becoming more widespread. Research this week from the Corsham Institute – a not-for-profit organisation that looks into issues around society and technology – highlighted the need for politicians, industry, and society to work together on gaining a better mutual understanding of the negative effects of the digital revolution.
Let’s face it, we know all these risks. We know we need to be better prepared. And while it’s true that technology moves faster than the law and politics can keep up with it, we already have perfectly good laws that outline our rights and responsibilities to fellow citizens that should apply to our online lives as much as face to face.
But change – especially on the scale of the digital revolution – is always an opportunity for those willing to exploit the cracks between those rights and responsibilities and when challenged, cry “You can’t stop progress”.
No you can’t, but you can make progress with more empathy and understanding – with an ethical approach to what you do, considering the social impact of what you do as much as the money you could make from doing it.
The global tech sector has never been in this position before – leading enormous change at the most basic levels of the way we live and work. It has a lot to learn. Google, Facebook, Uber and others are starting to see early glimpses of the backlash that could threaten their futures if they carry on this way.
It’s easy to say that the tech sector needs to step back and make ethics as much a part of the change it foments as the technology it creates. It’s much harder to make that happen.
But here, change has to start from the bottom – everyone in tech needs to ask themselves, what I can do to be more ethical, and to make sure the digital revolution is focused on the positive changes it can bring to our lives.
Six years after launching Computer Weekly’s annual search for the most influential women in UK technology – and perhaps 20 years since we started writing about the issue of diversity in IT – sometimes we feel like we’re bashing our heads against a brick wall.
After all, during that time the proportion of women in IT has remained stubbornly stuck around the 17% mark – our latest salary survey shows that’s still the figure today. And over the past six years, we’ve seen a huge growth in events, awards, networking groups and public profile for these issues – all of which is welcomed.
Yet still nothing seems to change. Let’s remind ourselves of why this is so important.
According to the latest official figures, there are 1,482,000 people working in technology in the UK. Job creation in IT is running at double the rate of the wider economy. But by 2020, it’s forecast there will be 800,000 unfilled tech jobs in the UK – and that’s without considering the potential impact of Brexit. Some 18% of UK IT professionals were born overseas – lose many of them and the expected skills shortage becomes even more acute.
The education system won’t fill the gap – this year, just 15,906 students took computing or ICT A-levels. According to 2015 figures, 13% of computer science graduates remain unemployed six months after leaving university – the highest rate for any degree course. Apprenticeships are growing – and of course, IT employers recruit extensively beyond the pool of IT-related qualifications – but it’s clear we’re not going to solve the shortages solely through young people entering the profession.
Therefore, we need to target areas where we are not making the most of the available wider workforce – and that mostly means more women, and also more BAME, LGBTQ and people with disabilities, as well as tackling the institutional ageism that’s all too frequent in the industry.
It’s not just about jobs, though – it’s also about having a workforce that reflects the diversity of the technology users the tech sector seeks to serve. It’s about avoiding any further situations such as voice recognition systems that don’t work with women’s voices because they were developed and tested by men. And it’s about avoiding situations like this video that recently went viral – of an electronic soap dispenser that doesn’t recognise black skin:
So why aren’t more women joining IT? For a start, our salary survey shows there is a 25% gender pay gap – that’s huge. The average wage for a man in UK IT is £78,599. For a woman, it’s £59,209. That’s shocking, and has to be addressed.
The issue of women in tech has gained much greater profile recently, featuring in national newspapers. But read those articles and you’ll see they are all about examples of misogyny and sexism – mostly in Silicon Valley – and as such, only serve to give women more reasons to avoid the industry.
Greater awareness of the issues is welcome, of course. But things will never change as a result of women or other tech employment minorities sitting around a room telling each other what the solution might be. The presence that’s typically lacking in that room are the men who still make the majority of recruitment, hiring and promotion decisions. They are the ones who need to change.
That’s not to have a go at men – many of whom genuinely wish to see change. But many men simply don’t realise their role in perpetuating the “male, pale and stale” image of IT. We need to educate men to change their behaviour, to bring diversity to the tech profession.
As British tech pioneer Karen Spärck Jones famously said, “Computing’s too important to be left to men”. We’ll keep bashing our heads until that brick wall crumbles.
It can’t be often that an IT leader decides to take a job because his or her new employer says it “doesn’t want to have an IT department”.
But it’s fair to say that Starling Bank – where that IT leader, John Mountain, is now CIO – isn’t your run-of-the-mill company with legacy systems and a room full of servers. Starling is a “challenger bank”, one of a new breed of digital-only entrants to the UK banking scene that’s appeared since the Bank of England loosened regulations.
As a startup, with no technical debt, it’s easy to take a different approach, but Starling is just the latest new organisation to offer a glimpse of what the corporate IT department of the future is likely to look like – or not look like, because there probably won’t be one.
As our recent interview with Mountain explains, digital staff at Starling are embedded in the business, part of multi-disciplinary teams focused on specific functions, products or services. But it’s not the first time we’ve seen this – nor is it an approach that needs to be examined over time to prove it works.
In retail, online-only firms such as Asos and Net-a-Porter have similarly been working with technology staff within business teams, alongside marketing, finance, product design and development people and others. Those companies would attest that such a setup has been instrumental in their ability to compete with high street giants and to be faster moving and more responsive to customer needs.
It’s been so successful that Atos is expected to overhaul Marks & Spencer in stock market value very soon. M&S itself was forced to overhaul its digital operation a few years ago in response.
The high street banks are going to face a similar challenge before long, but burdened with billions of pounds of legacy hardware and software that severely restricts their ability to transform the way IT works.
Starling, for example, starts from the basis that infrastructure is a commodity and runs everything in the cloud – an option not open to the online shopping firms when they were startups. Cloud is likely to accelerate the digital development of fintech startups at a greater pace than even retail.
The lessons are there for every IT leader in every organisation. If IT is meant to be part of the business these days, then why aren’t IT professionals part of the business too? The standalone IT department is dying.
At the start of the 20th century, most major US corporations employed a vice president of electricity. We’re at the start of a digital era that promises to similarly transform the way IT expertise is deployed.
HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) new chief digital and information officer (CDIO), Jacky Wright, appears to be an excellent appointment.
She’s spent six years in senior roles at Microsoft, most recently at its Redmond head office near Seattle. Previously she was a CIO at BP for three years, and a CIO at GE for eight years. She is a role model for women in technology, and an industry influencer beyond her day job, recognised in independent lists of top tech leaders.
I’ve talked to people who have met her, and they speak highly of her. HMRC is said to be very excited at her appointment to such a critical role, while the department is part-way through one of the biggest digital transformation programmes in the public sector in Europe.
“Jacky Wright brings the skills we need to deliver on our commitment to transform HMRC into a world-class tax service,” HMRC told Computer Weekly. There seem to be few arguments against that statement.
However – as revealed by The Register – there’s potentially a big question mark over Wright’s tenure. She’s not actually leaving Microsoft. The software giant says she will be “on leave” while employed by HMRC – she is not leaving Microsoft employment permanently, like most of us would expect to do if we moved to a new job.
Not surprisingly, this has led to concerns over a potential conflict of interest for someone who will be only temporarily absent from one of HMRC’s and the UK government’s biggest and most important IT suppliers.
HMRC says she is employed on a two-year contract – nothing unusual there, her predecessor Mark Dearnley was on a three-year deal.
The department also says that when she leaves at the end of that contract, normal civil service rules will apply to any subsequent jobs she takes up. HMRC would not comment on whether it expects Wright to return to Microsoft at that time – but a Microsoft spokesman confirmed that the intention is she will return to the supplier at the end of her two years at HMRC.
Senior civil servants can require approval for any jobs they are offered for up to two years after leaving Whitehall. One of the reasons for doing this is “the risk that an employer might gain an improper advantage by appointing a former official who holds information about its competitors, or about impending government policy”, according to Cabinet Office guidelines. HMRC must surely be aware of Wright and Microsoft’s intentions.
HMRC told The Register that Wright “must recuse herself from any discussion and decisions relating to Microsoft, both within HMRC and across government and we will put in place the necessary governance to manage.”
Again, nothing new there – Dearnley was similarly recused from decisions related to his former employer, Vodafone, although the mobile operator is hardly as ubiquitous as Microsoft across government.
“When Jacky begins work for HMRC she will sever all financial, strategic and business connections with Microsoft,” said HMRC.
Computer Weekly put a series of question to HMRC over the governance of Wright’s recusal from Microsoft-related decisions:
- HMRC has said Jacky Wright will be “recused” from any decisions relating to Microsoft – can you provide more details of the terms of that recusal and how it will be governed? For example, what is the definition of the subjects for which she will be recused?
- What independent monitoring / oversight will exist to govern which decisions she will have to be recused from?
- What, if any, agreements have been put in place between Microsoft and HMRC relating to Jacky Wright’s appointment?
- What stipulations has HMRC made to Microsoft over any sensitive, commercial or confidential information that Jacky Wright may be party to as HMRC CDIO, which would otherwise be of commercial or other interest to Microsoft in its relations with government?
Again, HMRC declined to provide specific answers to those questions.
There are precedents – but they come from years ago, during an era that has largely been discredited when the government’s biggest technology suppliers dominated decision-making in Whitehall. At one stage, for example, an IBM executive sat on the board of the DVLA, so close was the relationship between the agency and its strategic outsourcing partner.
The Francis Maude / Mike Bracken / Liam Maxwell era ushered in after 2010 swept away such incestuous relationships.
Several IT industry influencers have stated their concerns on social media.
“It stinks of corruption. And arrogance that such conflict of interest would blow over”, said Tariq Rashid, author, Python guru, and occasional government advisor.
It stinks of corruption.
And arrogance that such conflict of interest would blow over.
— Tariq Rashid (@postenterprise) September 18, 2017
Phil Dawson, formerly a board director of tech sector trade body TechUK, and co-founder and former CEO of Skyscape Cloud Services – since renamed UKCloud – said: “Speechless. In what alternate universe is this good governance?”
— Phil Dawson (@_PhilDawson) September 18, 2017
There is no suggestion here that anyone is impugning or doubting Jacky Wright, her ability or her integrity. But inevitable concerns over the potential for conflict of interest put her and HMRC in a difficult position – one that surely could have been avoided. Why not simply quit Microsoft, for example – or for HMRC to stipulate that she does? That wouldn’t prevent her rejoining the company subsequently – subject to civil service rules.
What effect will her recusal from Microsoft-related decisions have on her daily work? HMRC is moving to the cloud, for example – given Microsoft is one of the leading cloud suppliers, will she have to remove herself from any cloud-related purchasing decisions? Will she get access to confidential pricing information from Microsoft competitors such as Amazon Web Services or Google, which may be commercially sensitive when her “leave” from Microsoft is over?
HMRC’s vitally important Government Gateway identity management system – familiar to anyone who files tax returns online – is built on Microsoft software. Will Wright be able to decide on issues relating to the replacement for Gateway, which is currently under development? And what influence might that have on Gov.uk Verify, the Cabinet Office identity assurance system that HMRC has pointedly tried to avoid adopting?
What about Windows or Office 365 – you can imagine the outcry from open source advocates if HMRC makes new commitments to using such Microsoft products during Wright’s tenure.
But these are important decisions you want a top IT leader to be involved with.
HMRC has made what appears to be a fine appointment for a massively important job – one of the highest profile IT leadership roles in the UK, let alone the public sector. Wright brings with her an impressive track record and the skills to make a real difference.
It can only be a disappointment that the terms of her appointment raise so many extraneous question marks that could easily have been avoided. HMRC should provide more details of how its new CDIO’s work will be governed and the oversight put in place to avoid any conflict of interest or any impediment to Wright’s ability to do her job.
Slowly, technology issues are rising to centre of the Brexit debate – as they should.
This week saw the publication of the UK government’s Data Protection Bill – our implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Digital minister Matt Hancock hailed the bill as bringing UK data laws into the digital age and presented it as some marvellous new British concept in privacy, when in truth it’s simply our implementation of GDPR – something we have to do by May 2018 anyway because we’re still part of the EU.
More importantly, the government’s commitment to a GDPR-compliant law post-Brexit is essential to our future trade with Europe. If we can’t freely transfer data in and out of the EU, we can’t trade.
But the bill is not all we need. The EU expects a formal data adequacy agreement with any third countries, and while GDPR compliance should in theory make that straightforward, it’s not yet guaranteed.
Earlier this week, business lobby group the CBI called on the government to prioritise a data exchange deal in time for the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019, warning that failure to do so could jeopardise £240bn in digital trade.
The CBI pointed out that the last major data deal between the EU and a third country was with New Zealand and took four years to agree.
This week the government also published a position paper on defence and security issues, in which it effectively asked / offered (delete according to your view on Brexit negotiations) to remain in all the key existing cyber security and intelligence sharing arrangements in place in the EU.
The UK has a jewel in the crown here in the doughnut shape of GCHQ, the premier electronic intelligence gathering and cyber security agency in the EU.
In Parliament too, there is a growing recognition of the challenges of redeveloping government IT systems to cater for a new relationship with the EU and new rules around borders, customs and immigration.
According to leaked documents, the government hopes to create a digital portal to check immigration status of EU citizens post-Brexit, joining up data and systems from the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and the Department for Work and Pensions. Bear in mind that the track record for developing joined-up IT systems like this is not great.
Meanwhile, MPs on the Treasury Committee questioned HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson about progress on the new customs IT system, without which import and export of goods post-Brexit could grind to a halt.
It’s very much a case of better late than never, but technology is finally being seen as a critical factor in making a success of Brexit.
Halfway through its 2016/17 financial year, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) digital team had spent £60m over budget, a freedom of information (FoI) request submitted by Computer Weekly has revealed.
As of the end of September 2016, DWP Digital had spent £454.9m against a year-to-date budget of £395.6m. The annual budget for the division was £844.1m. In a department renowned for fiscal probity, a 15% overspend would have caused concern.
It certainly caused a bit of a storm for some.
The next month, Computer Weekly heard from multiple sources that hundreds of IT contractors had been let go at short notice, amid rumours of a significant overspend. DWP later released figures showing the number of IT contractors in use last year fell from 652 to 359 by November.
Those sources said they had been given figures of around £200m during internal staff briefings from senior DWP Digital leaders – a number strongly denied by DWP at the time; denials acknowledged and reported by Computer Weekly. Senior figures in government IT – outside of DWP – subsequently told Computer Weekly privately they had heard of a similar number.
The figures released under FoI prove for the first time that DWP Digital was indeed over budget at the time – the department continues to vehemently insist it “does not recognise” the amount quoted by our sources at the time, and points to the fact that by the end of the year, the digital spend was back on track.
“We operated within our departmental budget for the 2016/17 financial year and plan our spending accordingly,” said a DWP spokesperson.
So what happened?
DWP is both a behemoth of, and a bellwether for, government IT. As such, it has been responsible for some of the biggest historic IT disasters – the Child Support Agency and the early stages of Universal Credit spring to mind. But it is also responsible for the smooth running of many of the largest and most critical IT systems in the UK public sector, including the government’s main citizen database, relied upon by other Whitehall departments as well as local authorities.
In recent years, DWP has famously fallen out with the Government Digital Service (GDS), subsequently (and unsuccessfully) tried to have GDS broken up, and since played its part in attempts to repair that relationship.
Cunnington’s departure from DWP in the summer of 2016 led to a major reorganisation. He had been responsible for the Business Transformation team, while director general for digital technology Mayank Prakash looked after what was then the DWP Technology division. Prakash and Cunnington were known to have a difficult working relationship, according to knowledgeable insiders, so the reorganisation was likely to have been to everyone’s benefit.
When Cunnington moved to take over GDS, parts of his transformation team were merged with the technology team to form DWP Digital, effective from 1 September 2016, with Prakash in charge. However, the final details of the merger took time to resolve – and to be reflected in the departmental accounts.
In November last year, Labour’s then shadow digital minister Louise Haigh submitted a series of parliamentary questions (PQs) to DWP, which revealed the digital year-to-date spend as at 30 September 2016 was £516.8m, against a full-year budget of £1,032m.
That’s £62m higher than the spending now confirmed by the FoI data, against £188m more annual budget. The discrepancy between those November figures and the latest FoI figures arise from subsequent changes as the details of the DWP Digital merger were sorted out. DWP said the PQ numbers were correct at the time.
The £60m half-year overspend, as finally accounted for, was clawed back through “commercial opportunities” – the details of which DWP would not reveal, due to commercial confidentiality.
“Commercial opportunities” can often be a government IT codeword for renegotiating large supplier contracts. For example, DWP has been slowly disaggregating a huge, monolithic outsourcing deal with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise – about half of its 1,000-plus applications have already been taken out of that contract, according to James Barton, head of delivery leadership at DWP Digital, speaking at an event in London in April 2017.
When the Universal Credit (UC) programme was “reset” in 2013, it was seen as a basket case, and held up as an example of government IT failing to learn the lessons of past mistakes. While the project still has challenges to overcome, the new UC digital service is rolling out nationwide with few significant reported problems. Under Prakash, DWP is moving to the cloud, and digitally overhauling many of its most critical systems. Progress is being made.
MPs have in the past repeatedly criticised DWP over a “lack of transparency”, a “veil of secrecy” and a “culture of good news”. Greater openness about its digital progress and spending can only be a good thing.
Having trouble recruiting IT professionals? If so, the government wants your help.
Most IT managers that Computer Weekly talks to have some form of skills shortages in their teams, and struggle to bring in new staff with the modern digital skills they need. The industry, through bodies such as TechUK and the BCS, has been warning government for years of a looming crisis where the ability of UK companies to exploit the latest digital techniques and technologies will be hindered by a lack of available skills.
A report by tech think-tank Coadec earlier this year suggested the UK will have 800,000 unfilled IT jobs by 2020. Action is urgently needed and Brexit will only accentuate the problem – especially given our current reliance on foreign-born tech expertise, which makes up 18% of the UK IT workforce.
This is not only a problem concerning people who work in IT – it affects the competitiveness of every company, and the ability of every public body to deliver cost-effective and efficient services. We already know that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn a year. As the digital revolution affects ever more areas of our lives and work, that’s only going to increase if we can’t develop the talent we need and fill the jobs that digital will demand.
In response, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wants to gather more information on what it calls “advanced and specialist digital skills” – which in everyday English means the regular IT department roles carried out in every organisation across the country.
DCMS is running a survey to capture data on the skills needs of companies – the jobs you are finding hard to fill; the skills you need; and the causes of the problems faced by employers of IT professionals. Every IT manager should complete the survey on behalf of their organisation.
It’s too early to know what the government will do as a result of this initiative – but it’s vital they get a broad and accurate picture of the state of IT skills.
Cynics might say, it’s all too little, too late – and they would have a point. But it’s also a rare opportunity for IT leaders to influence government policy and to help clarify the recruitment and skills challenges that threaten to hold back the digital economy – and your IT department.
There has been barely a passing public mention from the government about the need for new or redeveloped IT systems to support whatever trading and immigration regime the UK has when it leaves the European Union in March 2019. One sentence in a Philip Hammond speech has been all there is so far – plus some vague mentions of “technology-based solutions” in this week’s customs union position paper.
And yet, an internal Cabinet Office report produced in 2015 and seen by Computer Weekly, suggests that it’s already too late to develop any new digital services needed by that date.
The report was produced by the Government Digital Service (GDS) to assess its digital exemplars programme – the 2013 plan to digitally transform 25 of the highest volume government transactions.
When the review of those projects was completed in June 2015, 20 services were available to the public, either as a finished product or as a working prototype (known as a “public beta” in GDS terminology). Some had been a bit of a disaster, such as rural payments and the original Universal Credit programme.
But the report found that the average time for a new digital service to reach public use – either fully live or in beta – was two years. The completed exemplars ranged from 1.2 years to three years in duration.
Most of these exemplars were tightly focused transactions – booking a prison visit; registering to vote; lasting power of attorney, for example. The more complex services – passport renewals, rural payments, Universal Credit – were excluded from that two-year average because they hadn’t been completed in time.
So the big lesson from government’s attempt to digitally redevelop its most important services was that you need two years to do so. And we don’t have two years until Brexit.
What’s more, the exemplars report said the average size of the development team for a new digital service was 43 full-time employees – the biggest of those studied needed 350 people.
According to a report earlier this year by the Treasury select committee, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) alone may have 24 IT systems that require changes for day one of Brexit. That implies as many as 1,000 digital experts needed if all those services need redeveloping, for just the one large department.
GDS director general Kevin Cunnington has already said that the civil service could need as many as 4,000 extra IT staff just to complete its existing digital workload – and that doesn’t include Brexit.
Where are all these extra digital experts going to come from, at that sort of scale, in time for March 2019?
And so far, we’ve mostly been talking about timescales and resources needed for relatively straightforward services – as rural payments and Universal Credit showed, the most complex systems need much longer and more people.
HMRC is already struggling with its new import and export system for freight handling – and that’s before we know what it will need to do post-Brexit.
The Home Office has been trying to replace its core immigration IT systems since 2003 and hasn’t done so yet – relying still on a 20-year-old application alongside a system developed in 2004 for a trial project.
Cunnington has said that GDS is working with departments to assess their digital Brexit needs – quite how they can make such an assessment when the details of what will happen are still unclear, is a whole other question.
But GDS’s own experience shows emphatically that whatever the conclusion of that assessment will be, it’s already too late to start.
We have read a lot about the issue of women in technology lately, since the publication of a dubious “manifesto” by a male Google employee, postulating that women may be biologically unsuited to a job in IT.
The argument is clearly absurd. If you look outside western countries – where IT workforces struggle to achieve more than 20% representation of women – the issue doesn’t exist. IT teams in India and south-east Asia, for example, commonly have much greater female presence. Not to mention the fact that computer programming was invented by a woman.
But the ensuing debate raises a more pertinent question about employment practices in tech – not about the role of women in the workforce, but about why IT employers hire the sort of men who feel the need to make such specious arguments to justify their existence and the lack of diversity around them.
Let’s declare an interest here. Computer Weekly has campaigned for over a decade for more women in IT and greater diversity in the tech workforce. To us, it is self-evident that an industry that seeks to change the way we all live and work needs to reflect the society it serves.
Now that IT has burst out of the datacentre and into people’s homes, pockets and hands, it is not acceptable to find out about voice recognition systems that struggle to interpret female voices because all the developers and testers were men; nor to have wearable technology for medical and fitness assistance that don’t offer features to help monitor periods for similar reasons.
Silicon Valley is fast developing an unwanted reputation for institutionalised misogyny. Several high-profile incidents at tech companies such as Uber and others have highlighted an apparently toxic culture that favours men.
Here in the UK, there is less evidence of such anti-diversity attitudes, but still the IT workforce is barely 17% female. There are – generally minor – pockets of misogyny, but the issue here is more one of unconscious bias. Even male IT leaders who want to recruit more women are often unaware of their own inherent behaviours that undermine a genuine desire for a more diverse team.
But we don’t hear other industries turning to arguments about biological suitability and anti-diversity attitudes to anything like the extent that tech does. Why is that?
A key element of unconscious bias is recruiting people who are similar to yourself. That’s not necessarily to say that IT recruiters are unwittingly misogynistic – but it could be that they bond easier with men who, subconsciously or otherwise, are.
As Computer Weekly has said before, the only people who can make IT a more diverse workforce – in every sense of the word “diversity”, meaning a mix of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, attitude, skills and so on, that better reflects wider society – are the men who still make most of the hiring decisions.
A lot of men don’t like to hear this, but it’s they who need to adapt. Many already have. And it’s our belief that the vast majority want to – it’s up to all of us to help make it happen.
Clearly we are going through the phase in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology where rationality and reasoned debate are replaced by science-fiction scaremongering and dystopian dread.
Where once we were told that mainframe computers would destroy back-office admin jobs causing mass unemployment, now we’re told AI will destroy front-office jobs causing mass unemployment. Such forecasts were wrong then, and they will be wrong now.
But the thrill of sci-fi speculation over AI is proving too much for some people. Every development in AI is portrayed as the forerunner to Skynet from the Terminator movies, or something from Blade Runner, Westworld or another vision of a future ruled by robot overlords.
Paypal founder and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk joined in, warning that AI represented the greatest threat to mankind. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded, saying he was optimistic about AI and attacked “naysayers” who “try to drum up these doomsday scenarios”.
Musk came back, dismissing Zuckerberg as having “limited” understanding of the subject. Of course, they are both right – in their own, perhaps hyperbolic way.
There was similar over-reaction to reports that Facebook turned off an experiment in AI when its bots appeared to create their own language in which to communicate. In reality, that’s not quite what happened – but it’s a better story for sure.
Sadly, we’re probably going to have to get used to this for a few years yet, until AI becomes more mainstream, creates as many jobs as it eliminates, and starts to deliver huge benefits to businesses and society – much like new technologies have for the last 50 years.
There are risks – of course there are. But the same ingenuity that is being applied to developing AI, will also be applied to learning how to manage it, to understand the risks and mitigate them.
Musk himself is doing just that – his latest venture aims to develop a commercially viable brain-computer interface, which he sees as a way to make sure that the processing power in our brains can keep up with developments in machine learning.
We are, in many ways, starting into an age where what was once science fiction will become a reality – but just because sci-fi writers realised that dystopian visions sell more books than utopian dreams, we’ve become culturally conditioned to the idea that too much new technology is a bad thing.
For IT professionals, your job is to understand and explain what AI and other emerging technologies can bring to your business and your customers – and to deliver the enormous potential on offer. It’s down to the tech community to prove the doom-mongering is just that.