Robotics Tech Artificial Intelligence

Will 2015 be the year we develop a more thoughtful relationship with technology?

By Lee Sankey | design director

January 14, 2015 | 7 min read

When I recently asked a 20 year old whether I should buy a PS4 or Xbox One, he replied “it depends on which corporation you want to let into your house”. This is an example of the new kinds of questions people will be asking in 2015 about the role of technology in our lives.

Lee Sankey

My prediction is the debate around the implications of technology will go mainstream. The debate will be as diverse as technology itself, be it the implications of smart phones, the way society is monitored or genetic engineering. However, human augmentation, artificial intelligence and robotics will be the standout topics in 2015.

The roots of this new, questioning approach to technology can be seen today. We are seeing a huge rise in the interest in meditation and mindfulness as reaction to the pace, intensity and stress of modern life, including technology. Ironically, many companies at the forefront of innovation promote in-house meditation sessions including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Intel.

Sally Boyle, head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, said in an article in the Guardian in May 2014: “In years to come we’ll be talking about mindfulness as we talk about exercise”. There was even an all-party parliamentary discussion on mindfulness held in the House of Commons in April 2014.

In fact, I attribute much of the rise of Middle Aged Men In Lycra (MAMILs) to the physically meditative nature of cycling. The combination of being outdoors, active and not looking at a screen is an attractive antidote to being ‘constantly connected’ for many people. According to the National Cycling Charity, London cycle use on main roads over the 2012/13 financial year was 176 per cent higher than in 2000.

More people are questioning their work/life balance despite the time-saving benefits offered by technology. The US, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, ranks only 28 out of 36 on the OCED Better Life Index when it comes to work/life balance. According to a 2014 report on work/life balance for the Association of Executive Search Consultants in America, 64 per cent of senior executives have seen a decrease in personal and leisure time due to the impact mobile technology and 57 per cent rate work/life balance as important as remuneration.

And in 2014 we also saw a deal between employers and unions in France that prohibits bosses calling their staff outside of work hours, a clear signal of a recognition of the way technology can have negative consequences as well as benefits.

Best-selling books such as Ariana Huffington’s 'The Third Metric' suggest an interest in alternative measures of success and re-evaluating what’s important in the digital age. As well as advocating meditation, Huffington’s philosophy advocates making time to unplug from technology and get more sleep – famously encouraging women to literally “sleep their way to the top”.

It is clear that our ability to advance technology is not matched by our understanding of its implications. You could smoke on the London Underground until fairly recently. Today sparking up on the tube seems totally bizarre. In the same way, 2015 will be the year when we start turning the tech telescope around and asking “did we really do that?” Malcom Gladwell remarked in an interview in Smiths Journal in 2014: “Whenever I think about email, or Twitter and Facebook, I feel like we’re in the earliest possible point in the evolution of those ideas. All I can say with certainty is that the way we’ll be using those things in 20 years will not resemble the way we use them today”.

People have always questioned technological advances, from the dangers of nuclear power to the ethics of heart transplants. But ponderings in 2015 will be different because more people will be asking more questions as technology becomes more powerful, touching more people in more profound ways.

First, human augmentation and artificial intelligence, once fantasies, are looking increasingly achievable. These represent unprecedented seismic shifts in technological power and possibilities for humankind. But writers – including James Barrat, in his book Our Final Invention – are now posing serious questions about such advances. According to Barrat, the consequences of getting AI wrong is the end of humanity itself.

Further evidence that these sentiments are going mainstream in 2015 can be seen in articles such as one in the Guardian on the 6 September 2014 on human augmentation. In that piece, Yuval Noah Harari, the historian and author of Sapiens, suggests that “there is a real possibility of creating biological casts, with real biological differences between rich and poor… With this kind of upgrading treatment we could have, in the not too distant future, more than one human species on earth”. These issues will be central to the new level of technology debate in 2015.

Second, the pervasiveness and accessibility of technology is increasing. The meteoric rise of mobile computing is an obvious example, but a plethora of advances such as gene sequencers, robotics, drones and sensors are becoming increasingly accessible.

This will accelerate in 2015 with the introduction of Apple’s Home and Health kits. More and more people will be using and be touched by technology and therefore have the opportunity to experience the benefits and implications. Wearables and services for health monitoring have obvious benefits – however, what happens if your terms of employment require you to be monitored by the same technology? These are the kinds of questions that will enter the public consciousness in 2015.

Third, the implications of technology are changing. Technology increasingly affects intangible values and characteristics such as privacy, fulfilment, empathy and what it means to be human. These are new territories. For example, the democratisation of information is a wonderful thing. YouTube is an incredible learning resource, especially for musical instruments. However, some professional musicians are wondering if easy access to knowledge is making people less curious and setting false expectations of how long it takes learn a musical instrument. Mastering a musical instrument is as much about the learning journey as the technique you develop.

If we were able to download a 'Charlie Parker algorithm' instantly, Matrix-style, would the player be as fulfilled as if they had spent years practising their craft? Would the listener’s perception be altered? Would the music be less authentic or devalued if anyone could play the same instantly? These issues go to the heart of human fulfilment. One of the world’s leading blues harmonica players Jason Ricci said earlier this year: “I miss the days before the internet. Information was more important to people then and was harder to get thus respected more and reserved for those who were dedicated.”

These diverse drivers signal that in 2015 there will be a new mainstream zeitgeist around the implications of technology. People will be increasingly scrutinising and ultimately considering the kind of world we are creating, how we want to live and what it means to be human. The conversation will not just be “can we?” but increasingly “should we?” and “what if?”

The outcome of this more public debate is difficult to predict. However, we will see more polarised approaches to technology and its application. Those that involve more thoughtful innovation and those that do not consider implications as well as the benefits.

Lee Sankey is an executive leader, creative and designer and was formerly design director, innovation and customer experience, at Barclays. Follow him on Twitter @LeeSankey

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