Today marks the launch of a new conference series; One Question. The conceit is a simple but intriguing one; an entire day spent addressing a single question through multiple points of view. In the case of the first release the question in question is “How do we successfully marry technology and humanity?”.
Spredfast has the pleasure of being a conference partner and as a part of that we contributed an essay to the accompanying publication; One Edition. This is the text from that essay;
It could be said that all all technology has been created with the express intention of assisting some element of humanity. After all, technology is not a self-generating and perpetuating entity, it comes from the minds and hands of humans.
Where we see technology not married to the needs of humanity is when these creations only meet the needs of niche audiences, or have unintended consequences. Recent examples include the impact that Uber and Deliveroo are having on the participants in the so-called gig economy. We can go back a few more years and find examples in DDT, thalidomide and cigarettes; all of which seemed like brilliant ideas at the time of their inception but proved to be less than optimal once their full impact was felt.
So the question really is “how do we marry our intentions with the resulting outcomes of our inventions?” As we develop algorithms that can learn by themselves, and robotics that can act autonomously of human instruction, this question becomes increasingly urgent and important.
But it was not always so and there are salutary lessons to be learned from history (lest we repeat ourselves). One of the oldest technologies is architecture or building technology. Before it became possible to mass produce building technology, architecture was uniquely developed and crafted by hand, evolving through a process of slow and deliberate iteration. Traditional or indigenous architectural forms have both distinctive aesthetics that ground them in their cultural, temporal and geographic locations but also exhibit sophisticated thermodynamic properties. I think particularly of the raised houses and verandahs of South East Queensland where I grew up and of the trulli of Southern Italy where I had my last holiday. Both are the result of centuries of quiet experimentation in optimising for climatic conditions and both are unique to their location.
With the advent of mass production, it became possible to realise our architectural dreams quickly and relatively cheaply; the disastrous tower blocks of the 1960s are the legacy of that cheap speed that we now live with. See `Pruitt-Igoe’ for the exemplar of this disastrous type of modernist thinking.
The lesson from these examples is clear: intentional iteration is more likely to lead to thoughtful technological solutions that are married to the needs of humanity. When we rush our technology it increases the risk of unintended consequences. So how do we achieve this without returning to a process that means innovation takes years or decades to emerge? It seems to me that there are two elements to this; a desire to want to marry technology to humanity and then the means by which to achieve that.
The former is hard to enforce; bad actors will always exist and our current form of capitalism appears to encourage short-termist expediency. But for the well intentioned there are processes and technologies of experimentation which we need to make more widely available. With a virtual world, artificial intelligence based scenario modelling (and enough processing power) it is possible to test infinite possibilities of different ideas. With 3D printing it is possible to develop and test endless prototypes of different products.
As we develop the skills, tools and data to test endless hypothesis, the actuarial skills of insurance companies should be applied widely to all of the scenarios that new technologies present us with. I can imagine a discipline or an approach which we’d call Thoughtful Intention™. Before a product or an idea is released on the market it doesn’t just need to go through Quality Assurance (QA) it also need to be developed in line with the principles of Thoughtful Intention™ (TI™). TI™ would employ all of the advances that technology has afforded us in the field of prediction and modelling to reduce the risk of unintended consequences. Does this sound like madness? Is it as mad as all of the damage we have wreaked on our bodies, economies, minds and environment as a result of technologies that weren’t married to our essential human requirements?
As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), said (and Samuel Johnson more famously paraphrased) “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.” If we’re to avoid damning ourselves to a technological hell, we will need more than good intentions. We will need what Franz Ferdinand identified as Right Thoughts, Right Words and ultimately Right Actions.