Techonomy recap: digital reach and repercussions

By General

Am just beginning to digest last week’s Techonomy conference – three days packed with discussions of the impact of digital technology’s acceleration and reach. Sessions focused on technology’s transformative effects on our daily habits, our society, and even our brains themselves.

There were plenty of truly remarkable examples of the improvements – from predicting elections to curing cancer to enabling worldwide education (the Forbes magazine with Salman Khan on the cover was omnipresent). But the strength of the conference was examining tech’s effects from divergent perspectives. Three sessions in particular made it easy to envision longer-term uncertain outcomes of a technology-driven future:

  • When Ray Kurzweil spoke about the Singularity (still on track for 2029) and his new book about the rewriting of our brains, then it was easy to go to a dystopian future where humans are ruled by machines. (Apparently in a hallway conversation, he did allow that John Connor was in with a chance.) As computers come closer to self-aware – and the examples of IBM’s Watson’s Jeopardy answers were astonishing – what is the risk to the humans we intended them to serve?
  • Andrew McAfee convened a thought-provoking panel called “Where’s my robot”. Here the dystopian future was less about artificial intelligence installing our new robot overlords, and more about a world of 75% unemployment when the robots have served us all too well. When robots have intelligence and dexterity, how many jobs will be left? As McAfee aptly remarked, “If you’re a mid-skilled, mid-educated, mid-ambitious knowledge worker, I think things look pretty chilly.”
  • Finally, a crash course in geoengineering with David Keith and Andrew Parker from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center introduced an ethical and policy challenge. If sulfur can be manually added to the upper atmosphere to reduce the planet’s temperature, who gets to decide where the global thermostat is set – when as much as half a degree might have ruinous effect for one nation alongside benefits for another. (Lance Ulanoff remarked he and his wife couldn’t agree on the right room temperature for their home – how can India and China be expected to agree?). As technology decisions erode borders, and enable us to craft global solutions with vastly different regional effects, who gets to decide?

If those were the longer-range future concerns, Techonomy also teed up immediate  examples of tech’s effects on policy and ethical considerations.

  • A panel on Transforming Social Enterprise covered the current use of microtasks distributed by systems like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Employment can be reduced, one presenter commented, in favor of a “flash workforce” available for piecework that could move beyond one-penny microtasks to more complex operations. There was little discussion of the potential societal costs – what happens to workforce stability? And what happens when the worker has no visibility into the overall job? Would you complete a small pattern recognition microtask for a nickel, knowing that the microtasks collectively might add up to a cure for cancer? How about if they add up to a capability for an authoritarian regime to better monitor its protesting citizens? (Watch Jonathan ZIttrain for a far more eloquent presentation of this argument.)
  • Finally, a discussion of Facebook product strategy saw David Kirkpatrick zeroing in on the newsfeed feature. If Facebook’s goal for the newsfeed is to become our newspaper of record, where is the transparency that helps us understand what the algorithm is filtering out on our behalf, and why? Kirkpatrick acknowledged the unprecedented global communications platform Facebook provides – but correctly pushed the question of the “invisible hand” of the algorithm and its effects.

Technology is responsible for remarkable transformations – thanks to ever better, faster, cheaper computing power, we have previously unimaginable information dissemination and discovery opportunities created by big data. The positive implications in areas like global health are staggering. Unlike the breathless nature of most tech conferences, Techonomy forced some focus on all the consequences – explicit and unintended – that we often miss in the excitement of digital acceleration.

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