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Harnessing today’s tech to create a better tomorrow

16 October 2019

In designing the digital future, human values and ethics must form the immovable foundations of technology or risk being sidelined altogether, warns Rahaf Harfoush

It seems as though everyone is obsessed with the future. Future digital markets, the impact of artificial intelligence (AI), the future of work: the list goes on.

Yet new products, markets and technologies do not develop in a vacuum. They emerge as a direct product of the current innovative culture, our relationship with technology and attitudes about its value and role in our lives.

Take Big Data, hailed by many executives as “the new oil”. At first, this description seems apt: data is a valuable and plentiful resource that can be extracted, refined and sold.

It is easy to think of data as something that is impersonal and separate from the humans who are creating it. And yet we live in an age of normalised digital intimacy, where we share our locations, health statistics, calorific intake, sleep data, favourite movies, purchasing patterns and even our most private thoughts with our devices without a second thought.

Data is not the new oil, it is the new blood

The human factor

Data is not the new oil; rather, it is the new blood. To put it another way, the data we share as consumers is an extension of our identities. And it is far too easy to overlook this human cost, forgetting that the insights we are chasing to improve business functions are being “mined” from real people.

If human-centricity is not at the core of your innovation strategy today, how can you expect your products and services to create a human-centric tomorrow?

Our technological landscape is dominated by a handful of powerful companies that have created information pipelines, propelling the rise of the first global digital culture.

In the fight to protect consumer data, policymakers are struggling to counteract misinformation and the use of social networks for malicious ends. They often examine only how technology is being applied, rather than the values and views embedded within the platforms themselves.

We live in an age of digital intimacy, where we share our most private thoughts through our devices without a second thought

Technology is the manifestation of belief systems. It not only enables the global exchange of ideas, but itself contains values and norms that influence not only our behaviours, but entire economies and societies.

As individuals, our use of platforms such as Facebook, Amazon and Twitter translates into an endorsement, and we become active co-creators of bringing that vision to life.

We talk about the future as though one day we will wake up and it will have suddenly arrived. The irony is that in order to predict a better future, we must invest in a better today.

Ethics and empathy

Leaders must be concerned with the technological conditions we are actively creating in the present. Rather than asking “will AI be good or bad for the future?”, we should be asking: “Whose vision of the future are we currently supporting through our investment of capital, attention, and time?”

Consider the focus on funnelling children towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers at the expense of the arts and other human-centric disciplines.

What is the result? We have a generation of brilliant technical minds that know how to code, but not what to code; they understand the algorithms, but not the human context needed to deploy them ethically.

Will we be surprised when the world they dream up prioritises technology over empathy? Companies are already struggling with the unintentional consequences of biases. We have seen hiring algorithms exclude women from recruiting pipelines and social media filters that beautify users by whitening their skin tones.

In order to predict a better future, we must invest in a better today

We all need to be very careful about what we pass on to machines as we teach them how to interpret our complex world. Otherwise those same biases will be amplified at a large scale in the tools we build for tomorrow.

The good news is this: it is not too late to make positive changes. This is not a technology issue; it is a leadership issue. As investors we can insist on supporting organisations whose vision of the future is sustainable and ethical.

If we do not actively push for diversity, ethical standards, data protections, transparency, oversight and equality today, then we should not expect them to appear magically in the future.

Rahaf Harfoush is Executive Director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture

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