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Tim O’Reilly on the good technology can do for society: ‘Our digital systems are crying out for us to augment ourselves’


By Stephen Lepitak | -

March 10, 2018 | 8 min read

The growth in the adoption of technology should not be something that is feared by society if put to the use of prosperity and good, that was the message of the keynote presentation delivered by technology writer Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media.

Tim O’Reilly

Tim O’Reilly speaking at SXSW

Speaking at SXSW, where he is promoting his new book ‘What’s The Future and Why It’s Up To Us,' O’Reilly explored the good that technology can do for the world and the reasons why people should embrace the fourth industrial revolution.

Don’t fear the tech

O’Reilly was dismissive of the notion that people should fear technology taking away jobs: “If we could put all machines to work we could enjoy all the fruits of that prosperity – what is keeping us from doing this?’ he asked while offering examples of how technology can enhance humankind's work in the world. ‘We are amazing, but we are also scared.’

An example he offered was the drone delivery system from California, Zipline, which sees the technology speedily deliver blood to scenes of emergency; “This shows what the future could be if we start writing about the right things about our technology,” he offered.

“Tech can be amazing but we have to put them to work on all these problems.”

Another example was of Amazon’s growth and how it had – perhaps controversially – introduced robots within its warehouses. However, they didn’t displace people, he claimed, but rather saw the company grow because of calculated efficiencies and ended up employing more people to grow into a global powerhouse.

This led him to cite ‘The Flywheel Effect’ by Jim Collins. Simply put, in the context of technology and business, the theory proposes that companies that can work with lower costs and lower prices can offer a better experience and make more money which will ultimately put more people to work and lead to greater prosperity.

“Give people new superpowers and put them to work,” stated O’Reilly while discussion how Amazon used the same model when it came to cloud computing and stated that ‘frontier firms’ like Amazon are capable of making people more productive by augmenting their abilities alongside technology, and ultimately pay them more.

“Our digital systems are crying out for us to augment ourselves," he later stated, also citing tech companies like Lyft and Uber which had disrupted the traditional taxi service through drivers using technology to instantly upskill.

Education for the next generation

Another message of O’Neill’s talk centered around the need to address the challenge of education for the next generation. "Continuous education is the new part of the future,” he stated, adding the companies needed to take more responsibility for investing in the training and knowledge of those they hire.

“We are doing amazing things with technology, [and] that’s what we should be focused on. However, if technology is our superpower then equality is our kryptonite. We are gifting ourselves with this enormous power as a species but through a bunch of failed ideas and bad maths, we are using it to make a small number of people incredibly wealthy and a lot of other people incredibly poor. It could be better than it is,” he added, claiming that today’s society still believed it was acceptable for companies to maximize profits regardless of the social environment in which they operate.

Back on the issues of society, he said companies such as Lyft and Uber would improve the working conditions for their drivers or else “lose in the long-term.”

The battle with algorithms

O'Reilly also claimed that society was only at the beginning of understanding how to use data and algorithms to help distribute resource.

“There will be an enormous breakthrough if we follow the right path," he said. "Because the next thing I worry about, in 2018 we think of AI (artificial intelligence) as a 'hostile' that is living and working inside of a machine, versus somebody working inside a Google data center, when we are all inside Google and Facebook. You are part of the machine.”

He added that robots learned from humans, while humanity could learn from them in turn.

“We are the sum of everything we have learned from each other and we are set to accelerate that process. We are part of the AI," he noted. "So when Elon Musk says that AI is the most serious threat to the human race, we shouldn’t be thinking of AI as some separate thing, we should be thinking of AI as the outcome of these digital systems that increasingly control us and control our society. We are really the sum of billions of people connected through digital means.”

He said that Musk was outlining the risk of objective function where a self-improving machine eventually decides that humans are in the way of it doing its job.

“Too few people worry what those in power will do with AI,” he warned. That is the challenge we need to confront; we have to deeply query the systems we built and ask are they doing the things we meant them to do?”

Citing the Mickey Mouse ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice' segment of Disney’s Fantasia, O’Neill relayed that: “I believe we have already seen this with Facebook where we have all these algorithms that only shows people what they like…we have put in place algorithms that we don’t understand or control and they are already causing us a lot of heartache — and it’s only going to get worse because algorithms all have these kinds of objective functions…this is optimizing for passengers only. These companies have to think about other factors. Google thinks about relevance, Facebook thinks about engagement, but they got engagement wrong. They thought that they would only show people what they liked, but they got it wrong and it turned out bad actors figured out how to manipulate that.”

Continuing on AI, he said that the question had to be asked about whether they were doing what they were created to do, and whether they were doing the right things and what human’s want.

“Somewhere along the line, we have programmed our systems wrong. We're told to keep being productive but that they should not share. There is plenty going around – but it is just not going around,” he continued while examining global productivity and wealth and how it is shared. “We could have that world but we are just not thinking about how we are getting food on the table. I believe it is the job of the entrepreneur to redraw the map and the job of all of us to think about what is possible today and how to make a fairer, juster, more beautiful world for everyone?”

O’Reilly made a strong argument for the development of AI, but was not naïve in stating that society trust it, or more acutely, those developing the technology. But the case for social good’s benefit is clear and the potential for the next step in human evolution very much is in the hands of the robots.

The April edition of The Drum magazine will focus on the growth of Amazon as a global company across several business sectors beyond retail, and will be available to purchase online from Wednesday 14 March.

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