Being brave

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Last week in an article in the Financial Review renown businessman David Gonski talked about the commoditisation of the professions.

Let’s be professional and fight artificial intelligence.  (David Gonski)

Gonski is right on a number of fronts, but very wrong on others.  He is totally right in that the humans in the workplace need to be human, and deliver ideas with humanity.  However, he is wrong about fighting artificial intelligence.

It is too late. 

AI may well be the best chance humanity has got to survive.  It may be our only hope.

We have extended both our minds and bodies with technology since we walked from the savannah.  Our latest invention, artificial intelligence, is set to revolutionise many of the socio-technical systems we rely on every day, and in all likelihood we underestimate the impact that it is already having, and the speed with which it is progressing.  It is not the AGI (artificial general intelligence or Strong AI) that is disrupting our world, it is the many and various Weak or narrow AI that is good at doing specific things, and upon which we increasingly rely and daily feed as the Social Machine.

It is the humans that are changing how the world works, not the machines.

This is one reason why we are having our Brave Conversations conference in Canberra in April.

We do need to talk, we need to talk openly and honestly, and we need to talk now.

Why?  Because …

AI and robots, like Climate Change, aren’t waiting for us humans to get our heads around the world that is changing, they are marching ahead regardless. 

Let’s get a sense of what is going on.

Intelligence has always underpinned human progress and driven our curiosity and ingenuity, and it has been as much a force for good as for evil.  With the assistance of our clever intelligence systems – computers and the data we are feeding them – these are just a few of the things that are  becoming real in the twenty first century:

All of this is happening because we have developed information systems which enable us to work with data, information and knowledge in new and more powerful ways.

Whilst these things are not yet a part of everyday life they are coming.

As William Gibson said

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.  (The Economist, December 4, 2003)

That distribution is what is going to determine the future of humanity, because it is going to be those with access to the smartest and most powerful technologies who have the power.  We are already seeing that with Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.

I am listening to many of these conversations as I travel around the world, and it is time that we Australians actively engaged in it, bravely, with courage, and a little bit of daring.  We need to consider what we can bring to the table that is different, that is uniquely ours, and not something that we are trying to emulate from elsewhere.

What do we do differently?  Here is a short list to start off with:

  1. we have the tyranny of distance – our distance from the Northern Hemisphere, the US and Europe means that we often watch what is going on via our screens, rather than experience it directly.  This both mediates our response but also gives us the opportunity to be less reactive and more objective;
  2. this distance also means that we are often little more than a sales channel for the multinationals who do very little research here, but we are a great test market;
  3. we can be innovative, but I believe that most of all we are fast followers – we see how others have done things and we quickly embrace new ideas, adopt new technologies, and then we play with them, alter and amend them, and apply them to new problems;
  4. we are a young country which is also an island – as a white nation we have never been invaded, however we have built this by invading the lands of others.  This gives us a juxtaposition of security versus insecurity,;
  5. we have amongst us the original custodians of this land, who have, over the last 60,000 years. accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience about the natural world and the place of humanity in it;
  6. we have a resilient and robust economy, which seems to be able to weather global crises;
  7. we have a stable system of government (despite the instability in our politics, and an appalling lack of leadership) built upon the foundations of the Westminster system which itself has endured for centuries;
  8. we have a strident multi-culturalism and a determination to embrace and accept ideas, cultures and creeds of all kinds;
  9. we have a young mindset which sits on a very old, ancient and fragile land;
  10. we inhabit the fringes of our continent, clinging to the edges and are often at the mercy of nature at her harshest with fire, floods and storms.  Through this we have a respect for nature which I think other places are gradually losing.

These are the things that I believe we can contribute to the global conversation because they impact on each and every one of us in our day to day lives.

People have asked me what the outcomes of our Brave Conversations will be.

To be honest, I have no idea.  But, nor should I.  That is not my role.  My role is to get the right people in the room together and then let them toss ideas around in a safe and respectful manner, to explore connections and gain insights that they might not otherwise do.

But there are a number of themes that will emerge:

  1. what is the role of government in the digital age?  At present governments around the world are struggling just to keep up, let along provide a framework within which the Social Machine is developing.  This is what Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt saw when they went to Gordon Brown and created Web Science.
  2. what is the economic value of a human as capitalism declines and democracy is in question?
  3. what is the importance of Web Science, which, as a multi-disciplinary field bringing together the Social and the Machine together, is needed, now more than ever.  Whether it is Asimov’s PsychoHistory or something else, the Web has changed the world, and the world has changed the Web.  The world and the Web are symbiotic.  Web Science considers all actors – human and technical, individuals, governments and enterprise – it is humanity in motion.

I asked Professor Susan Halford about the importance of Web Science and she responded thus:

Finding ourselves in this position raises questions that are both profoundly important and difficult to answer. 

  • How do we ensure that the Web benefits everyone? 
  • And what are the business and governance models that would underpin this? 
  • How do we deal with conflicts of interest, for example between openness and intellectual property, the right to anonymity and policing cybercrime, data based business models and ownership of our own data?
  • Artificial intelligence and human accountability? 
  • As the Web continues evolve in networks of social, technical, legal, political and economic relations we find that none of the existing areas of academic research are able to fully address the profound questions that are raised.
  • Whilst computer scientists understand the technologies, psychologists how they impact on human thinking, lawyers understand the legal challenges that arise and sociologists the ways that family life, communities and social identities are changing, any one discipline can only provide a partial answer.

Web Science was established for this reason: to ask the difficult questions, and establish the interdisciplinary capacity to answer them fully.

In these times of rapid change we need leaders who do bring the human skills as Gonski has said, but more importantly, we need leaders who are watching the horizon, who understand the implications of these powerful technologies and appreciate both the risks and the benefits, who can anticipate some of the potential consequences, and who are open to explore humans and society in new ways.

Our technologies are redefining who and what we are.  There is no stopping that and, thanks to AI and all that it enables, the humans who walk this planet in 100 years will be very different from those of us who are here now.  We have a responsibility to at least try to comprehend what is going on, and to proactively make choices that will benefit future generations, not stick our fingers in the dyke and hope that it will just go away.

Some may doubt that all of this is happening, and many may want to put their heads in the sand.  But, as with Pascal’s Wager, it would be foolish to not at least make provision, just in case.

Come join us and make your own adventure (to quote Pia Waugh).

Come and be brave!