Upgrading our humanity

AI and automation may hold the key to a human future, write Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington

Exponential change is the new reality. Our analogue, physical-world perspective is constantly being challenged by an emerging digital-world mindset. But while dystopian perspectives often dominate discourse around the potential impacts of increasing automation, we are in fact at the tipping point of an extraordinary opportunity for humanity: one in which technology could be developed and deployed in order to augment human capability, rather than subvert it.

Those opportunities will affect us all, in every part of the economy. Future-focused leaders must be alert to signals, predictions and scenarios of how the emerging future will alter the nature of business. And never has this been more relevant than now, as the world deals with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

As futurists with a deep focus on enhancing humanity’s prospects, what do we see as the potential solutions-based paths towards a very human future?

1. Extraordinary leadership

What’s good for business will be ever more entwined with what’s good for individuals and society. Leaders’ choices, and their consequences, will come under increasing scrutiny. Actions with negative outcomes could quickly bring down firms and governments.

We must boost investment in developing leaders able to navigate our rapidly changing reality. That means taking leaders out of our organizations to engage with those who are devising and implementing the ideas, processes, and technologies that are reshaping our world.

2. Digital literacy

Individuals, businesses and governments must acknowledge the central role of digital in all our futures, especially its relevance to our job prospects and to the health of economies and businesses. Governments and firms should therefore prioritize and invest in high levels of digital awareness, while individuals must take advantage of the wealth of content available online to drive their learning.

3. Education

Across the globe, education systems, corporate learning programmes and adult education schemes need an upgrade. Proven accelerated learning models can help individuals to rapidly acquire new knowledge. These approaches need to be accompanied by the acquisition of lifelong skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, scenario-thinking, and conflict resolution.

4. Evaluating exponentials

Governments and businesses tend to be slow and conservative in evaluating and experimenting with emerging technologies: this results in belated crisis responses when the impacts prove to be far greater and wider-ranging than expected. Initial evaluations must take an outside-in perspective, drawing on input from outside the organization and from varied disciplines, gathering a broad set of views. The earlier we have a feel for potential development paths, application opportunities, and potential impacts, the more comprehensive and effective our responses.

5. Employer responsibilities

In a world where, in the short term, technology may replace more jobs than it creates, we need a new debate on the extent of employers’ responsibilities. Be it helping staff with finding new jobs or paying higher taxes, the conversation must start now, as should experimentation with different options. Employers must also consider how they will use technologies that have the potential to monitor every aspect of employee performance, and how they will respect individuals’ privacy, rights and freedoms.

6. Support for job creation

Governments and businesses alike will have an interest in ensuring that new, meaningful jobs are created for those rendered unemployed by automation. Whether as customers or taxpayers, there is a need in the current economic model for people to earn money. An expansion and improvement of retraining schemes will be critical, as will a massive increase in support for those wanting to start their own businesses.

7. Investment in the jobless

A number of experiments are already under way with variants of guaranteed basic income schemes. Every nation will need to explore its policy options and experiment with different ways of supporting unemployed people, helping them retrain, and addressing the broader societal consequences of declining employment.

8. Creation of new sectors

From human augmentation to autonomous vehicles and synthetic materials, new industries are set to disrupt existing ones. Job losses in current sectors must be weighed against the potential for job creation through investment in R&D, support for new ventures and attracting inward investment. Governments must also act quickly to avoid steep rises in unemployment.

9. Addressing mental health issues

Across the planet, anxiety and stress have massive economic impacts. Addressing them requires us to change workplace cultures and management models, boost provision of mental health support in society and expand the number of therapy and counselling trainees.

10. Technology ethics

Trying to enforce global rules around technologies that nations see as core sources of future competitive advantage is a major challenge. There are also concerns over the weaponization of technology and the protection of personal privacy. With citizen and consumer pressure in mind, nations and firms must take the lead in establishing clear codes of conduct for critical technologies and their applications, and demonstrate that they are holding themselves to the highest ethical standards.

11. Draw constructively on the past

A very human future doesn’t require us to erase the past. It is important to honour our history and retain its positive aspects. Methods may differ between cultures, but the essence is the same: uphold values and behaviours that put people first.

12. A very human dialogue

The debate about whether particular advances harm or advance society’s interests will rumble on, so open public dialogue is key. Our challenge is to boost understanding of the issues, bringing more citizens into the discussion to share their views on what society needs – not just what technology makes possible.

So, the question is: how will your leadership practices help enable a very human future?

— Rohit Talwar is CEO of Fast Future, Steve Wells is CEO of Informing Choices, and Alexandra Whittington is foresight director at Fast Future