Staying human in era of limitless tech

As technology becomes an integral part of our everyday lives, the dependence on artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and autonomous products, is also increasing by the day. We are at a brink of an erosion of basic skills as well as face many deep questions on how this technology explosion will affect humankind. The immediate concern to be addressed is the future of digital transformation, ethical responsibilities of technology companies and the importance of maintaining our humanity in the face of automation.

As technologies offer new and sophisticated capabilities, we become more and more dependent on them. This in turn makes technology perform human tasks more easily leading to “amputating the social skills we once had.” We are more dependent on technology than ever before like using navigation while driving even in unknown territories. In 10 years, technology will be limitless and potentially dangerous if left unchecked. Society frowns on certain technological innovations, such as autonomous weapons. Other innovations, like the first gene-edited babies are debatable. We cannot but wonder on the role that ethics play – and will continue to play – in these scenarios, given that different societies approach these capabilities from different points of view.

Defining right and wrong isn’t necessarily easy. For example, if you lose both of your legs in a car accident, of course you should have [the option to get] prostheses. But what if you voluntarily say you would lose your legs to get new ones that are better? That’s probably not good, and who would decide that? That’s Supreme Court material.

I always acknowledge the role technology plays in solving humanity’s most pressing concerns, including energy issues, vertical farming for increased agricultural production, and preventing diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

The ethical dilemma comes into play when innovative benefits are not fairly distributed. If we have achieved things like cheap energy through solar energy, we probably (ethically) have to license it to other countries very cheaply, but we’re not doing that.

The current model, where the companies that own the technology are the only ones to realize the benefits, is unfair. We need to ensure that these benefits are shared, whether through an automation tax or another yet-to-be-determined solution.

Evaluating human skills through the lens of humanity can help us preserve our abilities instead of ceding them to technology. Some critical skills like imagination, thinking, passion, curiosity, empathy and persistence are only possible for humans to perceive. Is driving a car a skill that makes us human? No. Handwriting a letter? Yes.

Business leaders need to inculcate ways to transform their workforce and make it “future proof” against a more automated workplace. Why? Because every time work has been automated in the past, it is the repetitive work that gets automated. However, automation cannot replace the role of human. These core human skills are important today, but they’ll matter even more in the future.

It is hard to measure soft skills, which is why we must look for ways to teach them to our teams and the next-gen workforce. Soft skills make us different from the algorithms, bots, and other systems we’re relying on more and more each day.

If technology companies invested as much money in humanity as they do in technology, they could simultaneously innovate, propel success, and preserve valuable skills. This investment would include diversifying their workforces and hiring employees with high emotional quotients (EQs).

Maintaining humanity

As we progress in a digitally connected world, it’s difficult to avoid reductionism. We need to strike a balance in technological consumption the same way we would balance any other substance: You can drink 50 cups of coffee, but you aren’t going to be very happy.

While it is important in today’s economy to collaborate with machines for staying connected, the collaboration should not result into subversiveness of human creativity and feeling. Our machines have not yet become thinkers but with each passing day they are taking on more and more attributes such as reason, action, reaction and logic.

A digitally connected world has resulted in vast amounts of data being produced every day and with the emergence of technologies such as AI, ML and Deep learning we are handing over the decision-making capabilities to our so-called ‘smart’ machines, by overlooking the fact as to whether the final outcome is being influenced by unthinking deciders. A successful collaboration between machines and humans will be the one where humans can influence or debate the outcome.

As technology continues to advance and we debate the ethics of its impact, we need to make humanity and human rights our priority. The human brain is wired for experiences. If we take out relationships and meaning, we have nothing. We could be an amazing machine, but there’d be no purpose.

(The writer is Director – HR, NetApp India)

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