We have a unique opportunity to improve billions of lives and the whole planet through the technological revolution. However, myopic profit and power maximizing behavior is creating more problems and existential risks rather than solving the ones already on our plate. We need to put values at the center and use technology at the service of people and planet. In Europe, we have the opportunity to showcase to the world that this is viable.
Technology is changing our world faster than ever, and new trends like AI look poised to transform it even further. At the same time, we seem to have lost sight of the values and ethical underpinnings of the technological transformation. Democracies have been manipulated, personal data sold, employment and wages are at risk, and China, the US, and Rusia seem to be locked in a new Cyber cold war. We need to remember what we value, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, giving to each according to her needs, making our little blue dot sustainable. If not, we have the risk of ending up in some dystopia created by mindless technology.
There has never been a time of such opportunity through technology. Since the industrial revolution, we have gotten used to a breakthrough every handful of decades: the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, electricity… Now, without having finished the implementation phase digital revolution of the 90-2000s we have many different world-changing revolutions in the making. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has demonstrated its capacity to do more and more with less and less human intervention. Distributed Ledger Technologies like Blockchain have unleashed the early stages of a new wave of technological, financial and governance revolution with the likes of Bitcoin. The connection of billions of sensors and actuators is changing the fabric of our world through the IoT. New energy technologies like solar are promising to change our energy equation. Biotechnology is increasingly able to manipulate genes beyond our wildest dreams. Cybersecurity and cyber attacks are locked in a new deadly struggle that takes place in milliseconds. Neurobiology is showing us how the brain works behind the curtains, and creating the tools for incredible enhancement and irresistible manipulation.
Just one of these technological revolutions could have the potential to significantly improve the lives of billions of people around the world, and repair much of the harm we have done to our planet. We have the opportunity to accelerate even further the Millenium Development Goals, reducing hunger, poverty, disease, and war, while giving everyone a common base of education. We can transform energy consumption and tackle Global Warming before it is too late. In essence, we have the opportunity to bring an age of abundance and prosperity for all. We need to start focusing technology on people and the planet, instead of thinking just about profits and power.
Up to now, technology has been mainly viewed as an asset for financial gain or a weapon for hegemonic advantage at the nation-state level, rather than as a tool to help solve our problems. We have digital monopolies that have brought free applications we use broadly, but have monopolized the internet through network effects and aggressive disposal of competitors, manipulated human brains into addiction through careful design, and trafficked with citizen data to achieve previously unheard of valuations. We have an AI and Cyber-attacks race between the US, China and to a lesser extent Russia, with an understanding that “winner-takes-all”. And sadly, we have much less progress than is needed or possible to reduce existing problems.
This attitude has also created three additional threats looming, that might materialize challenging humanity further if we continue down the path of profits and power at all costs:
- AI-induced job destruction might happen to different degrees. Some claim that this is business as usual, and we will “only” face 5 to 7 decades of declining wages for those who can’t adapt fast enough, like in the first and second industrial revolutions. Others claim that we are like horses seeing the combustion engine come and will be totally or mostly out of jobs, even if it could be a good thing. In both cases, we will have to deal with substantial social disruption and increasing inequality.
- Techno-authoritarian dictatorships can combine traditional authoritarian methods with technology to create a police state that is almost impossible to overcome. China is already deploying pervasive face and person tracking and an integrated way of measuring a person’s “citizen score” to reward the good and keep close watch of those with less stellar scores. This can be used for good but has the potential to take Stalinist Russia to a whole new level. Combined with autonomous weapon systems it could allow a very narrow group to control a state or even the whole earth with little recourse. AI-induced job destruction is accelerating this by creating authoritarian leanings in the “digital have-nots” and threatening the logic of democracy.
- General AI could render humans obsolete. While there is a strong debate on the possibility and timing of General AI, some people like Bill Gates or the late Stephen Hawking think it is important enough to warrant attention. How AI is developed and the consequences of the AI Arms Race that China and the US seemed to have embarked in could be earth-shaking. Scenarios considered by thinkers like Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark run the gamut from human annihilation to paradise on earth, including AI-enhanced techno-authoritarian dictatorships.
It will be key to take technology back to values and ethics to manage the current and looming threats in a way that it is positive to humanity. We have seen what unbridled technology brings: user data breaches, manipulated election results, smartphone addiction, seemingly benevolent monopolies, reduced opportunity for most, and increasing inequality. At the same time, technology holds the power to improve the human condition and give incredible opportunities to everyone. Each of us and the organizations we represent need to place people and the planet first, even if that reduces profits and power slightly. Of course, only regulation will ensure a level playing field in which does playing for people and planet don’t get outcompeted by those who are willing to destroy in order to get more.
In Europe, we are in a unique situation. We don’t have the tech giants to “win” the unwinnable race, but we have a respected international position, a strong and large economy and a very developed talent base. We need to be the example for the rest of the world of how technology can be used for the people’s and the planet’s good. We need to put the regulation in place so tech players can bring innovation while respecting the values and rules of the game we cherish and hold true and contributing financially to sustaining a just society. If we manage to do it we might show that there is a viable alternative to unchecked techno-capitalism with masses of dispossessed citizens and techno-authoritarianism through a police state 3.0. This alternative will put people and the planet before other goals, like profit and power, which are really instrumental rather than fundamental.