Hearts, Minds & Machines for a Better Future

After decades of accelerating technological advancement, we have reached a point in history where we now need to focus our efforts on how to harness and control its power in the right way. This is why the biggest questions we currently face regarding technology, and the most important skills we need to develop in order to use it, are inherently human ones.

Our challenge now is to work out how best to apply technology to augment our human capabilities and amplify our potential, rather than to replace it. This will require a greater diversity of people and skills than we have previously seen in the business and technology industries. If we can embrace this diversity and ensure that we apply our most differentiating human qualities, we will be able to accelerate the benefits that technology offers, address the challenges that it inevitably poses and accelerate our path to a better future.

The Future of Technology

Without question, technology is rapidly transforming our everyday lives, workplaces and workforces. There’s also a lot of debate about where this is taking us.

Will the machines take our jobs or create new ones? Will automation diminish the role of humans or make us better at what we do? Will we become more efficient or simply lazy? Will technical skills or social skills be more valuable in the workplace of the future?

What about the rest of our lives? Will we wake up to freshly-brewed coffee made by our robot assistant before being ushered into an autonomous vehicle? Will we even need to go to work? The truth is - nobody knows.

It can be worrying to see just how quickly automation and AI are becoming pervasive in everyday work and home life. 

Some reassuring news then, is that there’s a unified effort in our industry to find a way forward which helping everyone achieve more, by empowering people equally. As well as a drive towards continuous learning and improvement, with integrity and transparency at the core.

It wasn’t that long ago that cloud, digital, social and mobile used to be intimidating buzzwords. Yet today, they’re the norm. Now we have AI, arguably the most powerful technology of our time, providing the potential to solve our biggest business, social and economic challenges.

So, technology is offering us an unprecedented opportunity to address the greatest problems we face, whilst also causing us to face further complex ethical decisions and challenges. Solving these challenges will likely require massive changes to our economic, industrial and educational systems.

These issues are deeply connected to the skills and diversity debate. The problems I face as a working mum with two young children have been helped a great deal by tech-based solutions. Hands-free in-car skype calls and being able to host remote meetings make a big difference when you’re juggling the school run alongside all your other parental responsibilities!

I’d argue modern society is still not fully designed for two working parents. Yet technology has helped make the workplace more flexible, improved mobility and accessibility to work. In doing so, it has increased equality of opportunity for millions of women, just like me. 

Much the same way as the invention of the washing machine freed women from the shackles of the wash basin, new and imminent workplace technology like VR, AR and mixed reality, will only improve things further.

I often think of organisations in terms of a left-brain and right brain analogy. ‘Left-brain’ is logical, analytical, and objective, while ‘Right-brain’ is more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. We all have core skills and different strengths – but we need the full spectrum, and both sides of the brain to operate effectively. 

This is critical to enabling more diversity in the workplace – whether that be gender, ethnicity, orientations or skills. In fact, the increasing prominence of technology in the workplace means that more than ever we need not just technological skills, but the humanities also, in order to fulfil our potential in the workplace, society and the world.

The recent focus on STEM, and particularly the efforts to attract more women into the field, absolutely need to be continued.

We will absolutely need more data scientists and machine learning researchers, but we also need designers, creatives, leaders and communicators - as Eric Berridge sets out in his excellent Ted Talk on why Tech needs the Humanities.

We should recognise skills and diversity are important multifaceted, nuanced issues, but we can also feel excited by the major role tech has to play in addressing both. Technology might be able to encourage and enable people to play to their strengths and follow their passions - in a way that’s never been possible before. 

Technology for a Better Today, and Tomorrow

Microsoft’s recent book, The Future Computed, also talks specifically about the need to amplify human ingenuity - using machines and AI to augment human abilities, particularly those associated with our unique ingenuities.

The book covers many examples of how technology, including AI, is already being used to address a whole range of global challenges, to drive social and economic progress.

Just looking at healthcare, AI is already being used to modernise the doctor-patient experience and overcome disabilities by enabling people with low vision to hear more about the world around them. At Great Ormond Street Hospital, A Minecraft version of the building has been developed to make the experience for ill children a little less daunting. 

Work is also already underway to address issues such as famine and environmental damage, with many examples cited, of work being done by university students - who are applying AI to solve these issues as part of their studies. These are important points – because to have more accurate expectations of the future we need to appreciate the positive progress being made in the present.

Yet we must also accept that a feeling of trepidation is a totally understandable, human reaction to a rapidly changing present and uncertain future.

Much like a question which was asked, accompanied by a slight sense of panic, at the end of one of our recent Avanade Headspace events on how AI will impact the future of work:

“So what do I tell my children they should study?”

Personally, I’m in agreement with Jack Ma. At this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos, he said we should teach young people how to learn, as well as how to discover and live by their values. It is our humanist qualities, our hearts and emotional intelligence that will differentiate us from the machines and enable a better future.

Onwards & Upwards

The good news is - if we can do that - use technology, such as AI or machine learning, to support and unlock the value of data, knowledge, other technologies and talent. We could potentially create an upwards spiral of human progress, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

The other thing we have to bear in mind is the sheer pace of change. Everything we’re worrying about now could end up being made redundant by a workplace (and economy) that will likely be completely different in 20 years’ time.

We can say with confidence that flexibility and accessibility, and equality of opportunity will always be important. Yet we should also be aware that this (important and valid) agenda is a response to our current construct of work - and that construct could end up being completely different to what we expect or predict.

When the kids just have to get into an automated car - or put on a VR headset to go to school from their bedroom - we will no longer have the same challenges we currently wrangle on a daily basis.

It’s true that some job roles will go. Yet new ones will arrive too, jobs we probably can’t even conceive of yet. For example, I read a story recently about how blockchain could turn plastic waste into currency for the poor, and help save our oceans. How could we even have imagined such an idea (and such a piece of good news), even a decade ago?

The Human Factor

To summarise then, technology alone is neither the barrier or the solution. The challenges we must overcome are ethical and societal, matters of privacy, security, regulation and self-preservation.

Therefore, our goal is to take the skills and values that make us human in the first place, like imagination, emotional intelligence, dexterity and integrity - and use technology to augment them. Making our lives better and easier, while also enabling each of us to reach our full potential.

This is how we can really make a difference and achieve change that helps everyone - and the generations to follow. I believe the keys to our future are not on a microchip, stored in the cloud, or sitting in a server farm somewhere on the other side of the world.

They’re in our hearts, our minds, and in our own hands.