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Column: Gerd Leonhard – Business As usual is Over

Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than it did in the previous 300 years. Yes, that’s a big call and some people may snicker at the sheer audacity of the statement. “You’re grandstanding!” they will say, “That’s unbelievable!” While I agree it sounds dramatic, I nevertheless stand by it. If anything, it’s an understatement when you consider the impact of exponential and combinatorial technological change.

When AI (artificial intelligence) meets HI (human intelligence), business as usual is dead.

The effects of the changes we’re witnessing surpass pivotal historical moments, such as the industrial revolution or the invention of the printing press. Technology will no longer remain outside us but will, and is, relocating inside us in the form of wearables, brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), nanotechnology, and human genome editing. What we are experiencing is a shift in the very definition of what it means to be human.

Before, technological revolutions involved the material world around us. Now that infotech and biotech are converging and technology starts becoming part of us, the changes will be unlike anything humankind has ever seen before.

What worries me about the transhumanism debate is the default assumption by most protagonists that humanity has reached its limits and that to advance further will require some kind of technological upgrade. This is not something we should take lightly. Technological progress is clearly not something that we can reverse by stuffing it back into the box. Technology is growing exponentially and, while this will likely have some very positive effects on humanity (such as ending diseases and providing all the energy we’ll ever need), we risk changing what it means to be human. We need to embrace technology and harness its positive powers without ourselves becoming part of our technology. Human genome editing promises to treat cancer or even prevent it altogether, but this very same technology could enable us to program our babies or create hybrid human–machine beings.

Consider machine translation. Tools like this make life easier, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean we should stop teaching our kids language skills in school. Direct and unmediated human interaction – in other words: F2F communication – is a precious element of humanity. Automating human interactions to such a degree that we can no longer function without an Internet connection would be a monumental mistake.

Gerd Leonhard

We need to embrace technology without becoming part of our technology.

Gerd Leonhard is the founder and CEO of The Futures Agency. He is based in Zurich. His new book, Technology vs. Humanity, is out now published by Fast Future Publishing.

 

What will separate man and machine in the future? Our brains may one day seamlessly connect to the Internet via BCIs but if we go too far mankind will eventually cease to function without it. Who gets to decide how far is too far?

If this continues, technology will no longer be a means to an end, but an end in itself; no longer a servant but a ruler. Facebook used to be a great tool for finding and connecting to friends but now it has become a gigantic data-mining operation powered by AI – a global media empire that generates billions of dollars in advertising. Our so-called tools have developed minds of their own. They vie for our time and attention, following their own agendas which are becoming more and more self-evident as entire platforms are bought out and floated on the stock exchange.

I believe we must strengthen those human elements that technology will, but should never, replace; things like instinct, creativity, empathy, intuition, and imagination (attributes I like to describe as “androrithms”).

Digitization and automation offer a giant boost in efficiency – which may be heaven for large enterprises but can also be hell for their employees. As a rule, datafication, automation, cognifcation, and virtualization (what I call the “megashifts”) help to slash costs dramatically, but, on the other hand, they lead to new security and safety risks – especially in IoT – and they impact our privacy and human agency in a huge way. Technology may be morally neutral until we apply it, as William Gibson famously said – but we are applying it everywhere now.

Of course, the digital future will require massive regulation and oversight but will politicians be qualified to make the right choices for us about when to regulate and when to leave well enough alone? Building the digital future so that it will be worth living in will require wisdom and foresight from governments around the world. Exponential technologies will redefine what it means to exist as a human being. Why not force every politician and public official to pass a “futurereadiness test”; a sort of driving permit for the future? Progress isn’t something we need to be afraid of. In fact, I believe things will turn out much better than many of us fear. But without global governance and a healthy dose of digital ethics and humanity, there’s no knowing where this unstoppable tech revolution will lead us.

I have long proposed the creation of a Global Digital Ethics Council (GDEC) that would provide guidance to governments and businesses alike. Societies, after all, may be driven by their technology – but they are defined by their humanity.

 

echnology vs. Humanity  - IoT Column in Smart Industry

Gerd Leonhard’s
new book out now

Technology vs. Humanity

Which side are you on?
Gerd Leonhard’s provocative new manifesto

 

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