Gerd Leonhard’s latest book Technology vs Humanity looks at the ways in which technology will alter our lives in the next 20 years and how we, as humans, have a responsibility to develop a code of ethics that will see us through one of the biggest social changes we’ve seen in centuries.

In the first part of our interview with Gerd, we talked about the implications of the rise of technology in general. In this second part of the interview, we discuss how business owners and entrepreneurs can approach innovation in the most human-centric way possible…

Technology is not evil

Gerd uses Facebook as an example of how tech companies need to start thinking about the moral responsibilities associated with their products.

“A shotgun isn’t per se evil but if you make it available for everyone to protect themselves for any circumstance then that becomes evil”

“I think Facebook has a very good model, in the sense that it has become indispensable to our lives on the internet” says Gerd. “Even if you think it’s evil (and I would agree at times, it can be evil), it’s probably going to get more evil as they want to make more money. Let’s put it this way, Facebook is a technology that can be abused in various ways (and some of that is not by design), but Facebook don’t do anything to help it, at least they’re not doing anything. But I think they’re thinking about it now.

“Technology is not evil, but it can be used for evil purposes and how we apply it has to be structured in a human way. My main beef with tech companies is not that their stuff is evil. A shotgun isn’t per se evil but if you make it available for everyone to protect themselves for any circumstance then that becomes evil.

“Simon G. Gibson, the science fiction author, once said that ‘technology is morally neutral until we apply it’, and so the application of it is what we have to think about. I’m not against progress on that at all, I think that is inevitable that we progress, but the question is who is in charge of it, and do 5 billion people have recourse or are they just becoming the objectified in this game?”

Ethics is no longer a nice to have

“You’ll be able to upload your brain onto the internet, or have a flying car.”

“As I like to say right now ethics is no longer nice to have” says Gerd. “It used to be like Corporate Social Responsibility, or greenwashing, they were a kind of a luxury. But that has changed. If we don’t have ethics on this kind of technology, we are doomed, because if we don’t have any rules, values and understanding, if we put all that aside and do whatever is possible, then we’re truly screwed.

“In ten years, technology will be able to do just about anything that you want it to do, you’ll be able to upload your brain onto the internet, or have a flying car and if we don’t find a way of saying this is why we should have this and who should be in charge then we’re not in good shape.

“The big companies that are leading the world, they are suddenly responsible for a lot more stuff.”

“Business and technology are converging, so no matter what you do, even as a technology business, they’re always impacting how people act. They’re impacting how people make money and they’re impacting social rules and democracy.

“If your company is employing software, the key question is not how efficient the company will be, but what is going to change? The big companies that are leading the world, they are suddenly responsible for a lot more stuff. They just can’t say ‘we’ll make this artificial intelligence and you guys figure out how to protect yourselves from it’. I think there is just much more responsibility and this is why we’re seeing more companies being interested and looking beyond efficiency and making bigger profits.

“If you count the wrong thing, you do the wrong thing.”

“There is no doubt we’re facing a giant wave of technological unemployment. All of us do some routine at some point in our lives and anything that is routine will be done by machines. It doesn’t matter what routine it is, [it could be the] routine of a dental hygienist or a truck driver anything that a computer can eventually learn, even most complicated things like administering social security, anything that is logical and can be done by machines will be. As a result, we’re going to invent many new jobs but they will not make up for the routine work that you do in a call centre or administering bookings or filling out financial affairs.”

A new way of measuring profit?

While there are certainly plenty of companies out there using “tech for good”, they still require cash to run. Gerd argues that we need a new way to measure profit that isn’t all about money.

“Bobby Kennedy already said in the 60s that GDP accounts for everything except for that which makes life worthwhile” says Gerd. “If you count the wrong thing, you do the wrong thing. So if we have a broader view on what the benefits of these things are and why we want them, then I think we can also have a broader view on our actions…. Currently one of the key challenges of all this transformation, is how do we transform economics?”

Opportunities for forward-thinking entrepreneurs

“There is a huge amount of problems in security and safety” says Gerd, “and some of those are to do with tech and some are really about social contracts. I think there is a huge opportunity here… I [also] think there is lots and lots of possibility in AI and intelligent assistants; building systems that are assisting humans.”

“We are going to be able to connect technology to society”

Gerd also sees a lot of potential in cognitive computing but warns of “the major challenge that we may be tempted to think of them as friends or as other humans. As soon as we can start talking to them, we can end up in a place where you speak with your machine more than you will speak with your wife, because you spend so much time with it.”

The most important opportunity Gerd believes is in social entrepreneurship. “[We] are going to be able to connect technology to society and we’re going to need hundreds of thousands of new politicians and public leaders who know about all this stuff. If you talk to politicians it’s astonishing, they can barely check their email, and so how would they be aware of all these things? That is a scary proposition. Who’s going to be making those decisions as to what should be allowed and what should not be allowed and why shouldn’t it be allowed? This is complicated stuff.”

The future of Silicon Valley

“My primary concern about Silicon Valley is not the startups and creative people behind them” says Gerd, “but the dream of making the world a better place while they get seriously rich. The fact that most of the activities in the Valley, as in China, are either driven by very rich investors or the military, or both… I think that it’s not a good sign if the primary motivating factor is either to kill people, or to make lots of money. That worries me… it’s promising a brave new world without much consideration for what that world would actually be like for humans.”

“There is no app for happiness, there is no app for being human.””

Continuing with Facebook as an example, Gerd says “Facebook has completely distorted the meaning of friendship and so you don’t really know what [friendship] means anymore. You think of being a Facebook friend and millions of people are lonely and depressed as a result of being heavy users.” Gerd says that he doesn’t see businesses taking responsibility for these issues right now but thinks it’s going to be “much, much more important to embrace in the future.”

For now, Gerd says, we need to “stay calm and just download whatever app will solve a problem. “As I like to say, there is no app for happiness, there is no app for being human.”

You can buy Technology vs. Humanity by Gerd Leonhard on Amazon.

If you want to discuss the future of your product or business, get in touch with Simpleweb today.

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If you’d like to discuss your startup or project, get in touch with Simpleweb today.

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