Date posted: 1/06/2018 5 min read

Technology and philosophy converge in the future

New Zealand and Australian Ambassador for Singularity University, Kaila Colbin shares how to unlock the potential of technology, and why purpose and philosophy are our competitive advantage for the future

In brief

  • Convergence of technologies will create disruption
  • Harness opportunities for innovation and productivity by determining repetitive aspects of your role
  • Maximise human qualities of creativity, empathy and critical thinking to add value

A technology expert and New Zealand and Australian Ambassador for Singularity University, Kaila Colbin recognises that the exponential convergence of technologies will create disruption. She poses the question “if you could automate your whole job, what value could you contribute?

Colbin believes it’s this human value that presents the greatest opportunity.

In fact, the nature of humankind and technology is connection. If we leverage technology we’ll create huge opportunities for the future, but we can only have the best of both worlds if we keep humanity at the forefront.

With multiple strings to her bow Colbin is well placed to advise finance professionals how to tap into the opportunities arising from new technologies. She’s responsible for spearheading the hugely successful SingularityU New Zealand Summit, the first in Australasia, and is co-founder and Chair of the non-profit Ministry of Awesome.    

Convergence of technologies will disrupt

Colbin says if people are only thinking about one technology as the disruptor they’ll miss the boat. Rather, it’s the convergence of technologies that has the potential to disrupt, and that’s exciting.

AI is the most obvious emerging technology that will have the biggest impact, Colbin says, providing competitive advantage. It depends on the business as there are so many ways AI can be deployed. For example, the combination of AI and augmented reality means you can put glasses on to look at a human patient or a car and diagnose problems with health or mechanics.

For finance professionals Colbin believes there are huge opportunities to provide a service where people engage directly with you. Her advice for finance professionals is to “adopt new business models where people are self-serving”, like Google AdWords, where you engage with the platform.

Sometimes, Colbin says, there’s no need to engage with a human when a computer can do the job more efficiently. For transactions like buying a mortgage it would make a more seamless process to get an assessment electronically without wasting time speaking to a human.  

Determine automatable tasks

Colbin refers to conversations about the future of work which claim a large proportion of jobs will be automated, as potentially misleading. When you actually drill down into the data, she says, it’s not entire jobs that will be automated but tasks within those jobs.

Colbin believes that the opportunities for innovation, growth and productivity can be grasped if we identify what aspects of our roles are repetitive and algorithmically based, and which parts allow us to be creative, in order to determine which tasks are ripe for automation.

The benefit of automation for business, Colbin says, is instead of having your staff doing repetitive tasks that robots can do, you have them adding creative value to do the exciting things robots can’t do. That way we can “stop wasting time and money on things we don’t need humans for".

“That’s the game changer, we can apply our humanity, thoughtfulness, synergy and value add, redirecting creativity and ingenuity to the decisions we make that could otherwise be lacking in empathy.”  

Question everything

Colbin reiterates the need to think critically and question things in our decision making. This ability is our value add as humans – it’s something that robots can’t do. The opportunities for growth, productivity and better decision making beyond the bottom line are huge.

Colbin warns businesses, however, not to rely on the face value of data to make those decisions, but to “be attentive because data has human biases embedded in the algorithms.” Instead her advice is to think about where the data comes from, who creates and analyses it, who makes assumptions and what’s the ethical implication of data.

“We need stewards who ask questions like: is the fact that we save money the key driver? What are the effects of this decision on staff and society?”

The extent to which data pervades our lives and is skewed is exemplified by the use of AI to sentence criminals. US system Compas, a risk-assessment tool used by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to assess parole decisions.

Decisions are made on the basis of questions asked to generate a risk score, and there’s a worrying lack of transparency behind how the algorithms make decisions. Does the tool decide that dubious socioeconomic factors determine a defendant's risk to society? Colbin says that Compas is likely to incorrectly say a black defendant will reoffend based on the data’s risk score.

In the case of Wisconsin v. Loomis, defendant Eric Loomis was found guilty for a drive-by shooting. The trial judge gave Loomis a long sentence partially because of the "high risk" score the defendant received from this risk-assessment tool. Loomis appealed his sentence because there was a lack of transparency available for him to assess the algorithm. The judge ruled, however, that the algorithm's output was sufficiently transparent. Yet how much understanding did they have over the biases involved in the tool’s decision making?  

Create your ideal future

According to Colbin, people talk about the future as if it’s some static thing that can’t be visualised or influenced, and is decided by other people. But, actually we can be master of our own ship. She believes “the future is decided by us, it’s a result of the decisions we each make every day, therefore we need to have more robust conversations about the things that matter, so we get to shape the future we want.”

Take the Netflix series Black Mirror, depicting a paranoid future where technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives. Colbin says, however, these scenarios are not fantasy but the reality of a near future, some of which is accessible now.

The Social Credit System (SCS) being implemented in China, for example, is not dissimilar to the social media scoring depicted on Black Mirror. This system, planned for completion by 2020, is designed to improve behaviour and crack down on crime by establishing the scores of 1.4 billion citizens, awarding trustworthy people and punishing disobedience. According to a report by the National Development and Reform Commission, Chinese authorities claim they have banned more than 7 million people deemed "untrustworthy" from boarding flights, and nearly 3 million others from riding on high-speed trains.

Colbin’s ideal future would include:

  1. Inclusivity – people would share in productivity. We haven’t yet seen the impact of technological employment, Colbin says, but we have seen the impact of inequality in share of capital. This is demonstrated by the situation we have of high GDP and low unemployment, yet wages are static and dissatisfaction is rife with our political systems – Donald Trump and Brexit are prime examples of this push back.  
  2. Technology not embedded in everything we do – a healthy distance from technology, where we’d use it during our working day, then log off and go the beach with our kids to enjoy moments of reflecting on what it means to be human – without phones or having technology embedded in our brains and eye sockets.  
  3. Focus on purpose and philosophy – creating balance, considering ethics and harnessing your human qualities are why Colbin believes having a purpose and studying philosophy are the subjects she’d encourage people to pursue.
    “There’s an inextricable link between tech and ethics, privacy and accessibility. You can’t have a conversation about driverless vehicles without considering people, ethics, risk and accessibility.
    “You pull on a single thread and find it’s connected to the entire universe.”

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