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12 May, 2017 07:25

In a world where everything’s interconnected through the Web, one blackout and you’re done

The future is here. The vivid dreams of authors and filmmakers, scientists, and artists are coming true – virtual reality is booming, cars drive themselves, and the world is growing more interconnected every day with the Internet of Things. But the highest hopes are mixed with the darkest of predictions – the death of privacy, mass unemployment and, of course, the rise of robots against mankind. What does the future hold for us? Are we putting too much trust in technology? Futurist, bestselling author, adviser to the world’s top CEOs – Jacob Morgan is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Jacob Morgan, futurist, bestselling author and speaker on the future of work, advisor to the world's top business leaders - welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. So, the spread of the Internet and low technology costs are creating what you call a ‘perfect storm’ for the Internet of things - a giant network of connected things ranging from your coffee pot to your car online. Why would anybody need their kettle to be hooked up to the web, isn’t that too much?

Jacob Morgan: Yeah, some might say that, “what’s the point of having so many connected devices”, but I think there’s a couple of things to be considered. So, one, you get a certain level of convenience, when these devices start to talk to each other, the idea is that it can improve productivity and it will prove efficiency and it will make your life easier and more convenient. The second thing that we need to remember is that a lot of these organisations, these manufacturers and suppliers of tea-kettles, toothbrushes, TVs, they’re going to start embedding these devices into their appliances and into the things that they create - regardless if you want them or not. So, think about a TV for example. It’s pretty hard to buy a TV today that isn’t smart, a TV that isn’t able to connect to the Internet. It’s kind of standard feature, and we’re going to see more of this just standard feature of connected devices in the coming years.

SS: Are we giving up a little too much control over our lives to machines? We have cars today which don’t allow you to speed, we have cars that turn off and stop if the cops are after you, or even if you’re late on the lease payment - I mean, should technology have this kind of power to override human decision-making?

JM: That’s the big debate, right. That’s where the question of digital ethics comes into play. How much authority should a piece of technology have? Think about an autonomous vehicle, for example. Let’s say you’re sitting in an autonomous car and an accident is unavoidable, and the car has to decide between either the driver getting killed or between running over two pedestrians and, perhaps, killing one of them. How does the car decide what to actually do? So, digital ethics is a big challenge, it’s a huge area that we’re trying to figure out and explore and uncover. But today, what the most people believe the most relevant scenario is, is not giving up control to technology, but working with technology to make better decisions. So, that’s kind of an ideal scenario that we’re trying to get happen.

SS: We also see machines that are life-savers, or that regulate our health, like the insulin monitors, clothes with sensors telling you when you need to exercise, smart alarm clocks - all this sounds convenient but also scary - because i can’t help but see potential for big brother-like control - do you see that danger?

JM: Of course! In a connected world where everything is connected to the Web, of course it makes you wonder what happens to privacy, what happens to security, and these are a lot of areas that smart technologies, the CEOs of those global companies are in the process of exploring and trying to figure out. But it’s not necessarily a type of big-brother, right, because you have devices from multiple organisations, and it’s not like everything is powered by one company that’s constantly overseeing, overlooking everything that you do. So, there are some regulations and rules and restrictions that these companies have to follow, but this is a whole big area that these organisations around the world are going to have to spend much more time investing in, and educating people on, so that you as a consumer are very clear with what information the organisation has access to, what level of privacy you can control and what happens to the data that on your devices that you’re actually creating.

SS: But isn’t it short-sighted to put all your eggs into one big network basket, I mean, to be so heavily reliant on it - If you’re so used to roads telling your car where to go and your home calling your doctor when you trip and fall, will you be left powerless if the network blacks out?

JM: It’s personal preference and it’s personal choice, right. So, when you say “network blacking out”, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where everything goes dark. I suppose it’s possible, but all that means is that if the internet in your house goes down, if your internet provider stops working - that’s it. Your smart lock is not going to work, your doorbell camera is not going to work, your smart TV will stop functioning. You’re done. Of course, it very much relies on one thing that makes all of this happen - and that is connectivity. So, if connectivity goes down, you get the blackout. So, that’s why there’s so much investment and initiatives from companies around the world to maintain consistent connectivity, to maintain consistent uptime. But, as far as being short sighted - it’s personal preference, right, I mean, it’s not hard to imagine a world in the not too distant future where you actually have to pay a premium to go on a vacation where you don’t have any connected devices. So, today, we’re so used to being connected on instagram, facebook and twitter and everything like that - imagine one day in 5 years when you actually are going to have to pay money to go on a vacation to a place where there’s zero connectivity. That kind of a future isn’t too far away in my opinion.

SS: What about hackers with malicious intent? If everything is connected, that just makes everything much easier to hack into and wreak havoc - seeing how oil rigs, nuclear plants, aircraft carriers are connected, too? Is the internet of things a security nightmare?

JM: Yeah! I mean, in fact, if you recall, I think that was a couple of months ago, there were a lot sites that were hacked: Amazon was one of them, Spotify was one of them, and there were a couple of others. When the security professionals looked at the source of these hacks, it actually came from connected devices, from the Internet of things. But this concept of hacking and hackers has been around forever, ever since Internet was first created, even before that you always had forgers, you always had hackers, you always had people trying to copy and duplicate information - so that’s never going to go away. We have plenty of it now, and, of course, in the future, as we have more connected devices, we’re still going to have plenty of hackers that are looking to do malicious things. It’s never going to go away, I don’t think it’s ever going to be perfectly secure and foolproof. I think just like today we need to educate consumers around what this means and organisations need to develop a series of standards and protocols to make sure that these hacks don't happen. But there’s no such thing as a foolproof solution in my opinion.

SS: Are we not being reckless - putting our private data, everything there is to know about us, into open networks? Even now someone who gets into my smartphone will know everything about me, my every move, all my habits, even without reading my email. Is technology and convenience killing privacy?

JM: So, you bring up an interesting point. This is something that a lot of people debate. Now you mentioned you have a smartphone, right, and that if somebody would get a hold of it, they would get access to emails and whatnot - but then why do you have a smartphone? You have a smartphone, because you’re willing to perhaps trade-off a little bit of privacy and security so that you can have access to that information. And so are most people in the world. Every time you use Facebook, every time you go on LinkedIn, every time you purchase something from Amazon or watch a movie on Netflix - when you read the terms and services of these various sites that you used, oftentimes for free, you’ll see that in the fine print you’re essentially giving up some level of privacy and security - but most people are willing to do this because it’s kind of a trade. I’m willing to give up a little bit of that privacy and security to use something like Facebook for free. I’m willing to give up a little bit of privacy and security to have a great device like an iPhone that I can use. So it’s a little bit of a personal preference and a personal trade, but I think the most people in the world, if you were to ask them, are comfortable making that trade - they’re fine with it.

SS: With 20 to 30 billion connected devices predicted to exist by the end of this decade, is the torrent of data they’re going to produce going to make big data look like a trickle - how do you manage a network so vast?

JM: Well, that’s the challenge, right? And some reports even have this number being higher, some say 25-30 billion, some reports and studies have the number being all the way up to 70 billion. That’s a lot of connected devices to think about and it really does make you wonder how we manage that infrastructure, how we look at and utilize all of that data - that’s something that we all are trying to figure out. What is the world going to look like when literally every device is connected? What happens with all that data? How do we make sense of it? So it’s not so much the big data that’s the problem, the problem is actually turning that data in some sort of insight, into something you can actually make decisions on. This isn’t just relevant for organisations, but also for individuals as well. I have a Fitbit, for example that tracks my fitness activity, I have a connected scale that measures my body mass, my fat percentage - so what’s going to happen when I add to that clothes that measures my fitness habits, if I can swallow something that measures things inside of my body, if you have a scale where you measure food and can analyze the fat content of that food - so, how do you make sense of all this information that’s coming our way? And the answer is - very carefully.

SS: The internet of things is said to have a multi-trillion dollar impact on the globe economy - how’s connecting devices going to boost economic growth?

JM: The idea is through productivity and efficiency. So, think about a situation where a farm can potentially manage itself - when you put sensor out into the field, it can measure temperature, it can measure when something needs to be watered and all these things can be done automatically. So, the idea is that the internet of things is going to create a world where things are more productive, where information is more abundant, and where humans can actually be more efficient. All of those efficiencies then translate into more productivity and that productivity is what translates into this GDP growth.

SSTechnology makes people more accessible - working from home, chatting, working together online- that’s no longer a problem - Why are employers clinging to the idea of people actually going to work even though we already have the technology that enables us to work from home?

JM: I’m glad you asked that, that’s something we see quite a lot. Even here, where I live in the bay area, which you would expect to be so forward-thinking and leading, there’s still plenty of people who have to come in into the office. I think the answer to that is no different than why organisations struggle with all sorts of things, often times it’s a fear of change, often times it’s things that’s related to complacency... We also have a very obsessive culture that’s focused on short-termism. So, why bother doing anything - organisations are measured in quarterly profits, we’re used to a kind of instant feedbacking information, so, when you make a change like that inside of your company, like changing your physical space and making this whole strategic plans around that and trying to determine its impact, it doesn’t fit neatly into that bucket of focusing on short-term gains. So, even so we do have a lot of those technologies in place, interestingly enough, organisations are still trying to wrap their mind around how do we work in an environment where I don’t actually see the person face-to-face. One point I will say on that is that we see a tremendous growth in that area, so a lot of strides have been made, big global organisations all over the world are producing flexible work programs, remote employee programs - so we’re seeing a lot of progress, but there’s still also a long way to go.

SS: So when is a computer or a pair of VR-glasses going to be enough for people to actually go to office? I mean, is the workplace going to turn virtual?

JM: I suppose it depends on how far in the future you want to look. In the foreseeable near future that’s not going to happen, right. I mean, if anything, we’re seeing that commercial real estate is booming, organisations are spending more money and more time investing in physical spaces. Instead of what we’re starting to see, though, is that the traditional concept and an idea of office is changing, and it’s focused much more on creating what I like to think of as an “employee experience center” - so creating a physical space, that has multiple floor plans, that has great technologies, and creating a space where employees can actually feel like they want to show up and a place where they’re can feel like they are going to be more productive and engaged and efficient. So that’s a lot of what we’re starting to see. I think we still have ways to go before we are all stuck at home, nobody goes anywhere and we’re all are just kind of wearing VR-goggles. I don’t think that’s going to happen in a near foreseeable future at all.

SS: Yeah, so I’m thinking, Google glasses - remember, one of the most futuristic, wearable techs on the market, it was virtual reality come to life, but all of a sudden they were taking of the market. Why didn’t the idea take off? Are people just not ready for innovations like that?

JM: Why they didn’t take off can be for all sorts of reasons. The applications of something like Google Glass is still something a lot of organisations are trying to understand, how that can scale, how that can be used for all sorts of different workers. I mean we’re starting to see more now, you even see commercials now on TV where companies like Samsung are promoting VR-headsets. So we’re starting to see more of a push in that direction, but it seems like most of the applications around virtual reality are for games. There are some forward-thinking companies experimenting with things, kind of on the fringes, but most of the applications that we’re seeing around virtual reality are for gaming, for watching films, for immersive experiences. We're still trying to see what the tangible business impact in our lives is going Tonne at the scale for companies around the world.

SSYeah, but also, maybe, despite the advances and technology people still should be going to the office - I mean, ideas flow better when you’re in the same room with people, all that brainstorming, all that body contact - that can’t be really replaced by technology, right?

JM: No. Everybody will agree, right, every time you shake somebody’s hand, any time you have face-to-face conversation... Technology cannot replace that. So, instead what we’re seeing organisations do, at least, forward-thinking leading companies is they’re instead creating flexible environments. A flexible environment is one where the employee can choose how they want to work. So, maybe, some days they come into the office, maybe some days they work from home, some days they work from coffee shop, but the employee can pick and decide. We’ve also seen some organisations like Cisco - they have some teams that are entirely virtual. Then we have other companies, that, of course, force everybody to come into the office, we have other organisations that say: “You can work anywhere anytime you want, but every Monday and Tuesday you have to come into the office for 4 hours”. So, we’re seeing all sorts of different models and approaches being tested to see what makes the most sense. I think that depends on the company, you have to do what makes sense for you.

SS: A hundred years ago, working hours were being reduced, and pensions were getting higher, and people thought that with the pace of innovation, a hundred years on, we won’t have to work as much and still have a good life. Now we’re still on an 8-hour workday or more, and despite the pace of innovation getting quicker, we are not feeling extra freedom, are we? Where is our four hours a day three days a week schedule? Will it ever come to reality?

JM: Oh, will it ever come to reality - who knows, right? That’s some of the theories around the concept of robots and automation taking over our jobs. So there’s some people who theorise that in the coming decade or two, we will see so much automation inside of our organisations, that employees are not going to have anything to do, they’re going to need to find time to do things. And the time that they will have, they’ll spend focusing on leisure projects, on things that they’re passionate about. This is why we also hear about things like Universal Basic Income - where if we have such a large percentage of a workforce that is displaced by the technology, will we have some kind of universal, basic, guaranteed income that these people will be given because they are not working. So there are all sorts of really interesting conversations and discussions that we’re starting to see around what this might mean.

SS: Every time there’s a technical breakthrough people lose jobs. A report from Oxford University has estimated that 47% of total America’s workforce is at risk for being fully automated, in China that number reaches 77% - are machines going to replace whole jobs? What will happen to people who are going to be left unemployed by smart machines?

JM: Yes. There’s so much you can say about this. So, the first thing that we need to remember, is that a job and a person are not the same thing. Automating a job is not a same thing as replacing a person. I’ll give you an example: Accenture is a large big global organisation, they have hundreds of thousands of employees around the world and they recently introduced technology that could automate a lot of the jobs that people in their finance department were doing, I think it was like a 1000 or 10,000 jobs. It was a large number of people, but even though these jobs were automated, none of the humans lost their jobs - because instead these humans were given other projects to do where they can work and provide more insights on financial health to their clients. So, automating a job and replacing a person is not the same thing. Take a doctor for example - a doctor has many jobs. They read health transcripts, they diagnose patients, they have to look at scans - and so, in that kind of a situation, something like IBM’S Watson can help the doctor read a scan, help diagnose a patient. So, that part of a job will be automated, but the doctor will still be there. So, automating a job and replacing a person are not the same thing. So that’s the first point I wanted to make. The second thing is that, yes, we will see, of course, displacement in the technology realm. One of the simplest areas we’re going to see this, of course, is in drivers. Look at how many people around the world make a living using something like Uber, being a professional limo driver... Once we get autonomous vehicles, over a couple of years, a decade or so, before they scale, we will see that kind of displacement start to happen. But we have to remember that it’s more than just technology that causes this. Today we do have something like an autonomous vehicles that is capable of driving itself, but how come they are not all over the place? How come they are not on all the roads in all the cities in all of the countries all over the planet? The reason is, it’s more than just technology that’s required for this kind of change to happen at scale - we have to think about societal issues, we have to think about legal and regulatory issues, we have to think about infrastructure. There’s a lot that goes into play before these technologies are going to get to the point, where we think they will get. But, long answer to your question - yes, I think we will definitely see technology having a displacement on jobs and this is why we need to focus a lot on education, on partnering with universities, and on things like universal basic income.

SS: PWC says for over 40 % of analysis it requires is done by machines - would you say it’s safer to rely on an accurate computer rather than good old human judgement when making business decisions?

JM: So there’s a great story, if you give me a minute or two, I can share this with you, that I think, summarizes this point very well: there’s a school district in Washington DC - and this was a story that was chronicled in the book called “Weapon of Math Destruction” - and the book, the author talks about this school district in Washington DC, where they wanted to identify who the lowest performing teachers in the school district were. So, they inputted some data into the algorithm, and the algorithm gave them a list of 202 teachers that were low-performing and they were all fired. One of those teachers, her name was Susan, was very confused, because she got great reviews from her teachers, great reviews from her students, from parents - everybody loved her. So, how could she be fired and identified as being such a low-performing teacher? It turns out that students that came to her class, from the previous school - the previous school had a high-incidents level of cheating, and what happened there is that during the standardized tests, the teachers would erase the incorrect answers that students would mark, and the teachers would put in the right ones. And the teachers of that school did this so that they would look better - so that it would like their students are scoring so highly on these tests. So when these students came to Susan’s school, when they joined her classroom and they did these standardized tests again, it looked like their scores plummeted. And that’s a great example when just purely relying on data and on algorithm can actually hurt you - because you have to remember that data and algorithms, these are things created by people, and people are flawed - so you can’t just create an algorithm and assume that whatever that algorithm tells you is going to be 100% correct. So the best scenario is to leverage something like an algorithm, but also still very much have that human eye to look at that data, to look at the big picture, and to identify if everything actually makes sense, because the data, the algorithm will only look at the things that you tell it to look at. It doesn’t know to look for cheating at a previous school, that’s something only human will know. So we have to work together with these algorithms, not just fully rely on them.

SSScientists have made big steps towards improving the artificial intelligence - enabling machines to learn, reprogram, replicate themselves - what happens when robots don’t need us anymore, like in Westworld? Do you think that will happen?

JM: It’s not just Westworld, there’s great sci-fi series by Isaac Asimov called “the Foundation” series, and I love science fiction, so everytime we see these depicted in movies and stories, I think, it’s really cool, quite honestly. It could, of course, potentially happen, it’s not going to happen in our lifetime, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario, in maybe, a 100 years, a 150 years, where technology is at that point, where AI is at that point where it can start to actually develop true consciousness, where it can replicate kind of human brain and that thought process. But I don’t think that’s going to happen in our lifetime, is it potentially possible at some point in the future? Of course. I think, depending on how far in the future you want to look, anything’s possible.

SSAlright. Jacob, thank you very much for this interesting interview. We were talking to Jacob Morgan, futurist, author, adviser to the CEO’s of the world’s top enterprises, discussing how technological advances are impacting our everyday lives and work and the dangers of our growing reliance on computer networks. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.