Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.
“Empowering the Generation of Tomorrow” was the title of an event I attended last week. I was invited to give the keynote presentation and felt excited when the organizers informed me that I would be introduced by Softbank’s humanoid robot, Pepper.
I’ve met “Peppers” before at airports and shopping malls in Japan and I have always been intrigued. The idea of being on stage with Pepper seemed fun. It would provide a taste of how the next generation will interact with intelligent machines.
Even though Pepper has been around for several years (they were first introduced in 2014), Softbank’s robot grabbed all the attention at the event.
Throughout the day, participants constantly referred back to my interaction with Pepper.
What was interesting, however, was that the attention was not positive. Our slightly awkward encounter was constantly used as proof that stories about an AI-driven “4th Industrial Revolution” are greatly exaggerated.
Many conference participants found Pepper “cute” but pointed out that humanoid robots are not even close to replacing human beings.
Of course, this is correct. But, using the “flaws” of Pepper as proof that “artificial intelligence” and “robotics” will not change the way we live and work anytime soon is shortsighted and potentially dangerous.
Well, first and foremost, Pepper wasn’t designed to be an autonomous humanoid. The original idea of the designers was to create a robot that could be a day-to-day companion or help businesses develop a better consumer experience.
But there was something more worrisome about the “dismissive” arguments. Skepticism about the pace of current innovation seemed to be based on three mistaken assumptions.
What I realized during the discussion was that many recent technological developments in AI, blockchain and robotics were downplayed or dismissed based on the fact that the current version of such technologies is not yet perfect.
However, waiting for perfection isn’t the smartest thing to do. First, you may miss the boat when (currently imperfect) technologies are deployed more broadly. History is littered with examples of companies that failed to act quickly enough when new imperfect technologies arrived and found themselves left behind by more adventurous rivals.
Waiting for perfection means missed opportunities or worse.
Moreover, even if the technologies aren’t flawless, they could very well offer significant improvements compared with our current experiences and ways of working.
Autonomous cars are a topical example. The fact that such cars are involved in accidents should not, in itself, be surprising. The real issue, however, is whether such machine-controlled automobiles are involved in less accidents than those with human drivers.
Experience teaches us from an early age not to expect anything near perfection from other people, so why demand such perfection from technology.
Another argument was that Pepper’s “performance” showed that innovation cycles today don’t differ significantly from the innovation cycles of the past. The fact that the development and mass dissemination of new technologies has previously occurred over extended periods of time was given as a reason for a more cautious view of current technological advances.
But this is like saying that the transition to the “autonomous car” will only occur in 50 years, because that’s how long it took for the transition from the horse and cart to the car.
This argument takes the current digital technologies for granted and underestimates the developments we have been through over the last 10 to 15 years.
Take smart phones as an example.
We are all so connected through these phones. We often don’t even realize that we have a very powerful computer in our pocket, enabling us to constantly consume and create content, and connect with people.
Even though we may not always like it, our lives already run through digital technology (with all its advantages and disadvantages).
In this respect, the Digital Revolution is different from earlier periods of technological change.
The pace of change is faster (meaning there is much less time to adjust to new technologies) and the reach of such change is increasingly global (meaning that technological developments are global events with global effects).
Skeptical arguments tend to focus on the limitations of a particular technology, be it a robot (like Pepper) or blockchain.
And, of course, when you look at a particular technology in isolation, developments can often disappoint. As a result, the widespread adoption of a particular new technology may perhaps never materialize (I increasingly hear and read these stories about technologies with great promise, that soon fizzle out).
Yet, the mistake here is to look at the development of technologies in isolation.
One of the other ways that current technological change is different from previous technological revolutions is that we live in an age of multiple, overlapping technological advances (meaning that synergies between new technologies, such as AI, blockchain and smart machines, accelerate their effects).
These technologies are accelerating each other and when combined, they have the potential to change the way we live, work and play.
It is the combination of new and possibly imperfect technologies working together that will deliver tomorrow’s experience.
Of course, it is difficult to make predictions about technological developments. But one thing is for sure:
Tomorrow’s generation has no choice.
It makes no sense to be a techno-pessimist or naysayer.
The exponential growth of technology doesn’t allow us to be passive and adopt a “wait-and-see” approach.
We shouldn’t wait for perfection. We should also stop applying old social and economic models to the new digital technologies.
A better strategy is to submerge ourselves in the “digital world”.
We are currently entering the world of IoT (Internet of Things). More and more data will be created. Machines will become smarter and more connected, making the “autonomous car” example more and more realistic and relevant.
Other use-cases for blockchain technology, artificial intelligence and robots will be identified. What is intriguing is that “non-tech” industries are increasingly impacted by digital technologies. Think marketing and legal services.
We all need to be pro-active, participating in the discussions about tomorrow’s technology.
Together, we must create the world of tomorrow.
I am convinced that the more people participate in the creation of tomorrow’s technology, the better our future experience will be. Active participation will help us better prepare for an automated and connected future.
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