Should we prioritize technological advances?

This blog post is co-authored with Devesh Raj, Senior Vice President and Head of Strategy and Planning at Comcast-NBCU. Devesh and I are friends and both Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. In this blog post we share some of our observations and thoughts after attending the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos.

This year's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos focused on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by Klaus Schwab to describe the new generation of technological advances – sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, precision medicine – coming together to define the next wave of progress.

These new technologies have the potential to transform our lives. Beyond sci-fi like scenarios – such as each of us having our own personal R2-D2, summoning our Batmobile, or colonizing Mars – these advances also have the potential to solve many real-world problems. With more intelligent, automated technology, we could generate renewable energy, address climate change, connect billions of people to the internet, develop affordable housing solutions and cure chronic diseases.

These advances are not far into the future. A recent report on Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact anticipates many such moments of inflection within our lifetimes – in fact, we may see major advances in transportation, artificial intelligence, and new payment technology as soon as the next decade. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, much of the discussion in Davos last month focused on the negative impacts of these technologies, rather than their positive potential.


The average year that each tipping point is expected to occur. Source: WEF report.
2018 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026
- Storage for all - Robots and services - The Internet of Things
- Wearable internet
- 3D printing and manufacturing
- Implantable technologies
- Big Data for decisions
- Vision as the new interface
- Our digital presence
- Governments and the block chain
- A supercomputer in your pocket
- Ubiquitous computing
- 3D printing and human health
- The connected home
- 3D printing and consumer products
- AI and white-collar jobs
- The sharing economy
- Driverless cars
- AI and decision-making
- Smart cities

One consistent, fearful theme was the potential for job losses. As automation continues to replace manufacturing or blue collar jobs, artificial intelligence will subsequently do the same for skilled, white collar jobs in banking, law or medicine. Estimates as to the impact this will have on jobs vary, but many prognostications in Davos suggested a depressive impact on the global economy. While it's true that technological leaps have often eliminated older, human-powered methods of doing things, many in Davos also recognized that advances in technology create new jobs, most of which we can't even dream of today. For example, the invention of the airplane created hundreds of thousands of jobs, from pilots, to stewards, to airport personnel, to international agents and more prognostications not to mention the transformative economic impact of billions of people traveling vast distances in a short span of time.

A second concern at Davos was growing inequality in the world between "digital haves" and "have-nots". This was reflected both as a challenge among nations – developed vs. developing – but also an issue for specific socio-economic groups within individual nations, some of which arguably are still not past the second or third industrial revolution. What does 3D printing or precision medicine do, for example, for rural parts of India and Africa that still don't have reliable electricity, while urban centers in those same countries race towards an era of smart, automated living?

A third common concern (particularly driven by robotics and artificial intelligence) was the "dehumanization" of our lives. There was a case for a renewed emphasis on qualities that make us uniquely human – empathy, sensitivity, creativity and inspiration.

Another issue centered on the ethical and moral challenges of many advances. Some conversations at Davos discussed the dangerous potential of eugenics-like scenarios in medicine, enabled by advances such as CRISPR/Cas9. On the flip side, could machines make positive decisions regarding human lives, such as a self-driving car making a choice between hitting a pedestrian or sacrificing its passenger?

One could argue some of these concerns are overblown Luddism. But in some ways, it doesn't matter – the march of technological progress is inevitable, as it has always been. Certainly, no one at Davos suggested slowing down the pace of technological advancement. The gist of the discussions was that we should figure out how to avoid, or address, the negative, unintended consequences of these changes.

We believe there is a major challenge with the Fourth Industrial Revolution that didn't get adequate attention in Davos – the issue of prioritization.

To date, the technological innovation that has driven the Fourth Industrial Revolution is shaped by the commercial prospects of small or large firms in the market. After all, one definition of "innovation" is the commercial application of invention. As an example, investment in alternative energy R&D fluctuates depending on oil prices, just as demand for hybrid or electric vehicles become more or less attractive depending on gasoline prices.

What if, instead of being driven solely by commercial returns, we could focus the Fourth Industrial Revolution more directly on the big problems our world faces? What if we could prioritize technological advances that have the most beneficial impact to society?

The world has recently defined its problems very clearly in a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Wikipedia), also known as the Global Goals, that were adopted by all countries last year to "end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all". The goals cover poverty, hunger and food security, health, education, energy, and water and sanitation – to name a few. A successor list to the earlier Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals get quite specific.

Take Goal 3 as an example: "Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages". This goal is linked to 12 targets, including these top three:

  • By 2030: reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.
  • By 2030: end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births.
  • By 2030: end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.

Of course, technological advancement is not the only solution to all Sustainable Development Goals – there is much more to do – but it is likely one of the major contributors.

As the world thinks through how to harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we think it is worth questioning which technologies we should be prioritizing to meet these Sustainable Development Goals. How do we draft policies and create economic incentives to encourage the right types of technology advances? What should governments and the private sector do differently to focus technology on addressing these goals? How do we direct the energy and creativity of millions of entrepreneurs towards improving the state of the world?

The world's innovation system is powerful and has generally worked well. However, it could use a guiding hand to nudge it in a direction that will benefit the planet beyond the incentives of commercial returns. Expanding our criteria for importance to solving areas of global need is not an inherently anti-capitalist idea. But it is one that would channel capitalism in the best direction for humanity as a whole. That, we hope, is the real agenda initiated by the focus in Davos on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which the world will seek to address in the coming year.

Comments

Paul Johnson (not verified):

Thought provoking post Dries.

"One consistent, fearful theme was the potential for job losses" - I'm optimistic that the opposite will happen and with strong evidence from history. Recent research using 140 years of data supports the reality that Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/17/technology-created-more….

Having spent some time in rural India, I wonder if access to technologies like 3D printing could reduce dependency on supply chain in regions of the world where infrastructure is fragile. Rather than solving first world problems like "automated living", I fully expect people in countries like India to apply these technologies in extremely inventive ways not occurring to those in developed nations.

I remain hopeful that this 4th industrial revolution will empower people and help reduce the void between haves and have nots.

February 15, 2016
Steve Karsch (not verified):

Interesting. At a previous job, we hosted a "Technology Day" for local high school students and I was lucky enough to deliver the opening message.

One thing I remember telling them was: "When I was sitting in your seat, my current job didn't exist. Keep an open mind. Keep looking around. Opportunities abound."

February 15, 2016
Kevin Oleary (not verified):

"One consistent, fearful theme was the potential for job losses"

I agree with Paul on this, but I'd go a step further. In the very short term, job losses hurt because the system has to rapidly adjust to a new paradigm. However, over time as more and more tasks become automated there will be increasing pressure on businesses and governments to re-define employment—like moving to a four, or even three day work week—which would naturally spread work out more evenly while increasing quality of life.

The counterintuitive part is that the pressure comes from the demand side of the economy. It is in nobody's interest for large numbers of people to be unemployed, least of all business, because in order to have markets for products and services businesses need customers with money to spend on them.

This is why many economists are starting to seriously discuss universal guaranteed basic income. Not from a redistributionist perspective—because the income would be *universal* and not targeted specifically to those with lower income—but simply to maintain a consistent level of consumption across the board.

This is why I believe that businesses will be pressured to make jobs more as attractive as possible, because in guaranteed income society, workers will seek jobs based more on personal fulfillment rather than economic necessity.

March 04, 2016

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