Technology is so pervasive these days that we either have techno-optimism – that everything can be solved through technology – or technophobia – that technology will get rid of all our jobs and create populism and protectionism.
Donald Trump’s tweets have changed our perception of how leaders engage with their supporters. His tweets simplify very complex issues, but strike an emotional chord. You either think its fake news or you trust the guy more. Right or wrong, they change the game.
TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a series of short TV talks that explains things simply (www.TED.com). With AppleTV or XiaomiTV boxes, we are now able to access global information in the form of education, entertainment or exploration. Of course, a lot of such information could be fake, misleading and even dangerous. But I am now learning faster through such talks and video than through books and articles in print. Even though I was an early fan and user of technology, I had not appreciated how much technology had changed the world and divided generations. In 2012, in both the US and China, internet advertising overtook print media advertising, which meant that more people were accessing information through the internet (either computers, tablets or smart phones) than print media like newspapers, magazines and books. The young are accessing social media, whereas the old are still relying on print media. Our mental maps are divided by a generational gap. As a baby boomer, the major input for me for serious decision-making has been print. But once I installed my TV box, I can now access directly in my home, lectures, talks and documentaries on all kinds of topics. Indeed with high speed internet at home, I do not need to go to the library, university or any expert. When I was shown Virtual Reality (VR) last year, I realised that very soon, we can have a direct conversation with any historical figure, like Aristotle or Confucius. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can create an Avatar (an imagined person), downloaded with everything they have written on any subject, and we can ask them anything – and get an answer from AI as if Aristotle were still alive. Who needs human teachers after that? If students can actually ask the Einstein avatar directly on quantum physics or speak with Leonardo da Vinci on how to draw, who needs to go to the local university? Learning becomes a game with the best avatar teachers.
Can technology deliver our salvation or ensure our ruin? The question is not answerable definitively, because despite our best precautions, there is no way we can predict how and where technology will lead us. For example, we can already genetically engineer any cell or animal, including putting stem cells that would help us re-generate our lost cells or tissue and help us recover. Would such cutting edge technology create new bugs or viruses that could create havoc with our health in future? Probably.
At the same time, we can use technology to save on our consumption of non-replaceable natural resources and improve our efficiency in many areas. What TED talks have done is to spread the good news about what can be done in specific areas, so any viewer anywhere is able to identify how to use these ideas in their own area of work or in their job or country.
Never has so much been available to so many. Bill Gates famously said that a genius is one in a million. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, 2008) claims that an expert can be created from spending 10,000 hours on a particular subject. If true, then we are about to witness an explosion of global innovation from the young who are now able to work collectively together across the Internet platform on any idea. Last year, Google’s Alpha Go program defeated the world Go champion Lee Se-dol, twenty years after IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov. As a game, Go is at least 300 times more difficult than chess, even though the moves are simpler but the permutations and combinations of moves are infinitely more. Alpha Go won by brute calculation force plus sheer memory power, but also a learning programme. It was not just about using Big Data to predict where to place the next piece, but to be able to recognize how the pattern was played before. Because Alpha Go had the database of all human games played, Alpha Go began to play with itself so that it had a larger database of how games performed compared with any human Go-master.
In simple terms, the human brain is now wired to AI, possibly on a global basis, so that the interaction of enhanced brains interacting with enhanced brains will bring an unimaginable computing power on solving global problems. The global enhanced Cloud brains mean that not only are all of us smarter than any one of us, the sum of AI-enhanced experts is very likely greater than simple human brains working together.
Technology may be available to all, but who chooses which technology to apply in a smart way to meet today’s challenges will decide the real winner. This is why tech firms are being valued significantly by the market more than traditional businesses that are still anchored mentally in the 20th century.
If you watch in TED how Kenya is able to use her best talents in technology to change very problematic governance barriers, you would realise that change is hopeful, rather than hopeless, even in politics. We are on the cusp of a major break-through in tech-enhanced social organization, even though it feels that we are on the edge of chaos.
How we organise for change is truly a mindset problem that only each group, city or country can sort out for itself. If the leader does not choose, the group will choose anyway, sooner or later. Leadership in the 21st century is to recognize the self-organization that comes from complex systems and to energise and empower such innovation.
(Special to ANN)
The writer, a former Central banker, writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.