Gerd Leonhard is the humanist among the futurists. His latest book – Technology vs. Humanity explores the relationship between (wo)man and machine, asking how can we fully immerse ourselves in technology while retaining what it is that makes us human?
It’s a big topic and a fascinating, highly recommended read. We caught up with Gerd to talk about the future of humanity, the likelihood of a future ‘realopia’ instead of clichéd utopian/dystopian scenarios as well as a new set of responsibilities of mankind…
“I think that we are now at the point where machines are no longer stupid” says Gerd. “For a long time, we talked about thinking machines and robots and AI and all that stuff, but we never actually got there…VR was a big topic in the 1980s and robots have been a popular theme in science fiction since the 1920s, so why did Gerd decide that now was the time to focus on humanitarian concerns in the face of technology?
“Machines can actually become as humans and humans may therefore become no more than machines.”
“Machines can now speak and understand language pretty well. We now have computers that are starting to develop their own way of thinking because of supercomputing, AI, deep learning and identities which mirror the human brain.
“No longer is a computer just a programme or a piece of metal; it’s actually moving up the food chain by devising its own programming.
“We’ve reached a whole bunch of pivot points including batteries, broadband internet, wireless internet and all that stuff and that’s all happening at the same time which means finally, machines can actually become as humans and humans may therefore become no more than machines.”
“We’re reaching a whole bunch of pivot points which remove the obstacles to man-machine convergence”
The time is now, Gerd says, because all of the limitations that have been holding us back are now going away.
“For example… due to the rise of solar energy we won’t have to worry about how much power computers will take. In 15 years or so, we will be able to connect different interfaces to machines, that’s a major game changer.
[You’ll be able to] speak to machines using VR glasses that don’t cost $100,000 and Brain Computer Interfaces that used to be for pilots [will be used by] doctors and lawyers and police. That means we’re reaching a whole bunch of pivot points which remove the obstacles to man-machine convergence.”
Serving humanity and furthering human flourishing
One of the main messages throughout Technology vs. Humanity is the importance of preserving the essence of our unique shared humanity.
“Technology doesn’t do anything by itself, at least not for the time being” says Gerd, “…but in the meantime we remain in charge of technology….
“We shouldn’t wipe out that part of human existence just because it is more efficient”
“We need more public debate about the side effects and issues that rise in the rapid technocratization of society. We also have to make decisions about how far we want that to go.”
It’s up to us, as people, Gerd says, to ask “what do we automate and what do we not automate? For example with the self-driving car, it’s not a human right to drive a car and it’s certainly isn’t a necessity… it has been a short period of history that has seen us driving cars… it’s not going to be a substantial loss.
“[However] we should not do without, for example, making our own selection of partners, exchanging friendship and relationships. We should not get machines to choose which partners are suitable for whatever the reason is.
“We shouldn’t wipe out that part of human existence just because it is more efficient to find a partner that has compatible DNA to you so that you don’t have disabled children or whatever the argument is…”
“If you look at something like Tinder… it changes people’s behaviour but it’s still very marginal because it’s outside of you and you are still [a person] using an app. But imagine if Tinder lived inside of an artificial intelligence, a dating bot, (this is actually happening, just not for the consumer). Imagine a dating bot that lives in the cloud and knows a hundred million data points, all of your updates and everything about you… that would be amazing, that would change our lives forever. Would it be a good thing to happen to people? And would they supervise it? I’m not so sure, we could eventually arrive in the movie Her….”Of course, technology is changing the way we find partners, but Gerd says we need to know where to draw the line.
The beginning of an evolution
“I think right now, we’re at a very early stage of this evolution” says Gerd. “The power of technology is here and it’s here to stay, it’s not going to go away. We can’t blacklist we can’t go backwards.
“How do you monetize a product about compassion, empathy or companionship? You can’t.”
“What we need to do is harness [technology] and create a social contract and ethics and rules around it. Some of those rules have to do with liability. If you’re a technology company that has 15 neuroscientists creating an addictive model to keep you plugged to the feed, I think that is just as bad as hamburger shops putting all kinds of stuff in our food so that we eat more of it.
“It requires regulation and understanding and openness and awareness. The companies that are doing this like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on, they need to be fully responsible for what they are creating. They have to be in a place that they can’t all just say more is better.”
Gerd says that there is a line between technology that allows for abuse, such as Twitter being used as a platform by internet trolls, and technology that is actually changing the way we think.
“Facebook is crossing that line” says Gerd. “It’s distorting people’s opinions, distorting elections and not doing anything about it. [Facebook is] not living up to being a medium and as technology is growing, the stuff that we’re seeing right now with Facebook and Snowden and surveillance, that’s only a drop in the water. We’re going to see this ten thousand times as powerful so we need to keep things in place.”
“We need supervision and social contracts, there is no way around that… The reality is that technology is making lots of money and anything about humanity is very hard to monetize. I mean, how do you monetize a product about compassion, empathy or companionship? You can’t. Therefore we always need to protect those things that cannot make money, just like we protect nature reserves.”
The rise of post-capitalism?
Gerd doesn’t foresee the fall of capitalism happening just yet but he does say, “I think in 20 years or so we’re going to a thing that I call post-capitalism, which is basically saying that we cannot use the same rules of consumption when consumption becomes really cheap and robots are doing all the work. The question is how do we actually make this work?”
“If this all happens and machines do the work and we can manufacture things more cheaply; if 3D printing becomes a reality, we can use these things to our advantage.
“If we get away from this concept that we work for money (and that is already happening. I think most kids that are 20-30 are working for what they want to do, especially millennials), in the future [money] is going to be less of a concern.
“You will always find your way out of a jam if you have a wider view.””
“Hopefully we’ll be able to say that machines have made things so much more possible that we can rise above them and think of [working in] a different way that does not translated so literally to how much money you make per hour.”
The transition won’t be a quick one, Gerd says, “but technology is exponential. I think in around 20 years we’re going to face that position where [we need to ask] should we have a guaranteed minimum income; should we have a basic income guarantee or reversed income tax, whatever you want to call it, so people can do what they want to do.”
Gerd doesn’t see much economic change happening in the US any time soon but he does see a major challenge ahead. “I think that has already started” he says, “but the best thing we can do is to be aware of these things that are happening, to observe them and take them in and develop responses, develop more foresight. You will always find your way out of a jam if you have a wider view.”
You can buy Technology vs. Humanity on Amazon. Watch this space for parts 2 and 3 of our interview with Gerd Leonhard.