BusinessEconomyphilosophytechnology
[ April 22, 2020 by Somi Arian 0 Comments ]

COVID19 and the Future of Business, Economy, and Democracy

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting global lockdown coincides with a time in history when human biology and technology are starting to merge – an accelerating trend that began with the advent of computers followed by the digital revolution of the past few decades. Whether this coincidence is truly by chance or aided by humans may never transpire. In his book, “The Precipice”, Oxford University Professor Toby Ord notes the probability of a naturally occurring pandemic in the 21st century as 1/10,000 and an engineered pandemic as 1/30. (Ord, 2020) Incidentally, the book was published on 3rd of March 2020, just as many countries went into lockdown. 

 

Regardless of how the pandemic arose, I dedicate this article to explaining how it is accelerating technological developments that will change the face of humanity forever. That human society is on the brink of a profound transformation in this century is – arguably – inevitable. Yet, without a robust model of transition, humanity risks an immature transformation that could lead us to pay a high price.

  

Towards the Singularity 

 

Human society is heading towards an evolutionary leap where our biology and our technology will merge. The process has already begun, and we are yet to see its full scale. The merging of these two aspects of human life is the first step towards a new era where the latter will eventually replace the former. 

 

I remember first reading about this idea in a book entitled “The Singularity Is Near” by Ray Kurzweil in the late 2000s. 

 

At the time, I was writing my MPhil thesis in philosophy of science and political theory at St Andrew’s University. The idea of a singularity fascinated me. Kurzweil borrows the term from physics when it is used to describe the depth of a black hole where the laws of physics no longer apply. Kurzweil uses this term, metaphorically, to describe a point in time when humans and machines fully merge. The specific date that he gives for this is 2045, with an earlier milestone being 2029 when he expects computers to pass the Turing test. (Kurzweil, 2005) If and when this happens we can confidently say that computers possess human-level general intelligence.

 

 

According to Kurzweil, once machines achieve this milestone, they will quickly surpass humans in a recursive process of self-improvement. Unlike humans, computers do not rely on a brain confined within an enclosure, such as the human skull. He explains that once we successfully make it to 2045, with the help of AI, humans can expect a much higher life expectancy of over 120 years. They can even have a real shot at achieving immortality, albeit this immortality won’t be in our current physical form but in a virtual environment. (Kurzweil, 1999)

 


Do you think this sounds like science fiction? Think again. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to envisage living in an entirely virtual environment, as many of us have done during the lockdown. Once we have a faster connection and more realistic 3D projections, we can experience being in the presence of our friends and families without them physically being there. 

 

  • While he is at it, I hope Kurzweil finds a way to make it possible to hang out with dead people, too. I would love to discuss the experience of my 21st-century existence with Nietzsche, Sartre, and Kafka over a virtual drink!

Over the coming years, humans will mostly live in a virtual environment. This will aid the speed of machine learning, which can lead to a technological singularity by the middle of this century - machines merge with humans and ultimately surpass them.Click to Tweet

 

An Esoteric Writer?

 

You may be thinking that Ray Kurzweil sounds like some esoteric writer with an overactive imagination! Once you read the next sentence, I hope you will agree with me that Kurzweil is far from an imaginative futurist and begin to take this seriously. 

 

At the age of 72, Ray Kurzweil is currently a Director of Engineering at Google. What’s more, he has been consistent with his predictions for the past four decades with a high degree of accuracy. Some of the predictions that he made in his 1999 book, “The Age of Spiritual Machines”, took place with a few years’ delay but, famously, 86% of his predictions have been correct. 

 

Some of Kurzweil’s predictions are particularly relevant to the current state of society. For example, he says that physical connection among humans will decrease, to the point that most human communication will eventually be between humans and machines. Education will take place with the assistance of AI in a virtual environment and human teachers will play the role of mentors. Finally, work will mostly take place in a virtual environment and, eventually, there will be no work for humans, as machines will do everything better than us. (Kurzweil, 1999)

 

Kurzweil admits that there will be many psychological, legal and philosophical implications for these impending changes in society. When asked about how we will deal with these issues without destabilising society, he doesn’t appear to have a solid answer other than that he is optimistic. He seems to believe that we will overcome the challenges and that the upside of merging with technology is worth persevering. 

 

Are You A ‘Speciesist’? 

 

Before we return to Kurzweil, here’s a story I read in a book entitled “Life 3.0” by Professor Max Tegmark of MIT. This story had such a profound impact on me that it kept me up at night for nearly a week after I had read it. 

 

Tegmark describes an evening when he is having dinner with Elon Musk and Larry Page (the co-founder of Google) and their wives. A heated discussion arises between Musk and Page. I’m paraphrasing here; but, essentially, Page tells Musk that he is a ‘speciesist’, noting that if life is to ever expand beyond earth to the rest of the universe, it has more chance of doing so in a digital form. Page stipulates that there is nothing intrinsically more valuable in carbon-based life, as opposed to silicon-based life. (Tegmark 2017)

 

This is a HUGE deal, and it has massive implications for the human species! It is my understanding that Larry Page – one of the most influential humans who has ever lived – is saying that our human form is neither our ultimate destiny nor intrinsically more valuable than a digital form. This hit me hard! But, after a week of long walks every day trying to digest it, I came to see his point. Furthermore, in principle, I came to agree.

 

Our carbon-based life doesn’t contain an intrinsically higher value than other life forms. Whether you believe other “life” forms are possible, that’s another matter. If we look at it through the objective lens of evolution, there is nothing to say that consciousness in general, and intelligence in particular, can only arise in the physical form that humans currently occupy. There is reason to believe that both intelligence and consciousness could be substrate independent. 

 

If we look at it through the objective lens of evolution, there is nothing to say that consciousness in general, and intelligence in particular, can only arise in the physical form that humans currently occupy.Click to Tweet

 

Transparency and the Problem of Free Will 

 

As much as I’m open to technological advancements, I feel uncomfortable with the possibility of how these technologies could affect our free will. I think we will see a radical shift in the notion of democracy in this century and the recent experience of lockdowns has given us a taste of this. 

 

If and when the moment arrives for humans to take the evolutionary leap into a new state of “being”, a new “form” if you will, we should be able to do so of our own free will and with a complete understanding of what that means. With every transformation comes a certain level of pain. Some precious experiences will be lost forever, in return for new ones. I believe we have the right to be made aware of these challenges and given the opportunity to deal with them. I fear that we may never get this opportunity. 

 

In “The Age of Spiritual Machines”, Kurzweil predicts that, overall, society will not resist the impact of technology. (Kurzweil 1999) And this seems true when we look at how we have adopted social media, our smart devices, and various means of digital communication. Moreover, it’s noteworthy how well everyone has cooperated with governments and technology firms during the recent lockdowns, knowing that our smart devices are being used to track our movement. 

 

Urgent Action Required!

 

As we increasingly live virtual lives, we face major challenges. If we are connected to “the cloud”, how can we be sure that the choices we make are ours? As I write this in April 2020, the ubiquitous connection to the cloud has not yet reached full swing but the Coronavirus incident has accelerated its arrival. For example, Apple and Google are joining forces to share data and technology firms are becoming rather friendly with our governments. 

 

I love technology, but I love my freedom too. I fear that with no adults in the room, some people could cheat. This is an urgent matter as we have only a small window of opportunity before we are fully connected to the cloud. We need to put some checks and balances in place before that happens.

 

As we become increasingly connected to the cloud, our data is used to train the machine learning algorithms of technology firms. Unfortunately, I feel there is not enough transparency from these firms to explain to people how everything they do on the internet contributes to the fuel that these algorithms need to become more sophisticated. 

 

In the meantime, the tech giants are becoming increasingly aligned with governments and this new alignment could enable corruption on a level never before experienced. Imagine the Cambridge Analytica scenario. In a world where the tech companies and governments are fully affiliated, our governments could easily turn a blind eye to the misuse of our data.

 

 

Living at this point in time in the 21st century means that we are experiencing many new paradigms that we have no references for. Our legal and ethical frameworks are, for the most part, completely inadequate to deal with a new era of human-machine relations. Just as we have International Law for dealing with the relationship between nation-states, we need new bodies of organisations dedicated to regulating the relationship between humans and machines and to clarify who owns the data generated as a result of their interaction. Let me give you an example. 

 

Wearable Technologies

 

As a tech philosopher, health-tech investor and an overall technology enthusiast, I’m the kind of person who uses wearable technologies on a daily basis. For example, I wear a ring that tells me minute details about my sleep patterns, my body temperature, heart rate variability etc. I love my ring, and I haven’t stopped talking about it since I started using it. 

 

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a message coming up on the app associated with the ring which says the ring’s manufacturer is now collaborating with another organisation to establish if the data collected by the ring can contribute to recognising symptoms of COVID19. The message invites users to join the study which means that, once you agree, your data will be used to enrich the machine learning algorithms currently trying to decipher how the virus affects the body and spreads to the environment. 

 

In principle, I don’t see a problem with this. However, it raises an important issue that I remain conflicted about on an ethical level and in terms of its overall impact on increasing inequality in society. If you are not sure what I’m talking about, bear with me. I will explain how this example also applies to Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, WeChat, Tiktok, Alibaba, and numerous other technology firms that are growing with incredible speed – thanks to Artificial Intelligence in general, and machine learning in particular. 

 

In Search of the Master Algorithm

 

Let me start this section with a basic lesson in computer science, that is the difference between traditional computer programming and the much newer field of machine learning – and please forgive me if this sounds too obvious or trivial to you. Pedro Domingos explains this best in his book, Master Algorithm, where he comments that you can think of machine learning as the inverse of programming. (Domingos 2015) 

 

I can’t express how important this is. It is this intricate fact that creates massive implications for the world of business, economy and the sociopolitical landscape in a way that we’ve never before encountered. 

In traditional programming, an individual or a company writes a code that tells the computer what to do – for example, to calculate your taxes. In principle, this is no different from creating a physical machine with numerous cogs whereby each cog triggers another until a final result is achieved. In this model, the inventor deservedly remains the “owner” of the intellectual property. If you invent the wood-chopping machine, you deserve to own the patent and make a lot of money from it. Likewise, if you write a computer program that calculates people’s taxes, well done. You deserve to become rich. 

 

For many years this was the only way we thought of computers – as agents that did what we said. Incidentally, Ada Lovelace, a protégé of Charles Babbage (the father of computing) and a woman who many believe to have been the first-ever computer programmer, once clearly stated that she believed the machine would never be able to originate anything – a statement that didn’t sit right with Alan Turing when he read it many years later. 

Now, what we have learned about traditional computer programming does not apply to machine learning, and this is where the conflict arises regarding two crucial points:

  1. Who truly owns the intellectual property?
  2. How do you calculate the value of the labour that creates the data?

 

Who’s Got My Money?

 

The two essential problems of an economic model built on machine learning are the lack of clarity regarding intellectual property and data ownership, as well as a general sense of disregard for the time and effort that goes into producing the data.

 

In machine learning, the individual or company that creates the algorithm is merely the initiator of a process. Once the process begins, the algorithm finds a life of its own by learning from the data, as long as you keep feeding it. As Domingos puts it, “people can write many programs that computers can’t learn. But surprisingly computers can learn programs that people can’t write.” (Domingos 2015) For this type of machine learning to happen, the system will require a huge amount of data. 

This raises the question that, if an algorithm that you created goes on to learn by itself and become millions of times more intelligent than what you set out for, can you still say that you own the algorithm?

Furthermore, this becomes even more questionable when we consider that the data that enriches the algorithms is a result of the trillions of hours spent by billions of humans across the globe as they take pictures, make videos, write articles and create content for the web. Even those who don’t post anything unknowingly train the algorithms just by browsing online. Most people are unaware of the fact that, merely by their presence on the web, they are enriching machine learning algorithms and, as a result, their creators. 

 

You Are Rich, You Just Didn’t Know It

 

In that sense, machine learning is somewhat like mining and refining oil. Imagine you have a well in your backyard which is rich with oil. You are not alone either. Your neighbours have these wells too, and so do the rest of the people in your town. But none of you knows how to extract the oil, refine it and use it.

 

Now, imagine a clever entrepreneur builds a machine that can extract and refine the oil in your backyard. But their machine will only work if – and only if – you pour A LOT of oil into it. The entrepreneur then has to convince you and everyone else to give him the oil to refine. In return, he offers you something that has a far lower value than the sum of all the oil he will extract from everyone’s wells.

 

The oil in our backyards is the data that we all leave behind when we are connected to the internet. Machine learning is the process of collecting and refining this data and producing predictions on its basis. Machine learning won’t work without lots and lots of data which we are collectively providing. 

 

Therefore, can we say that the person who writes the program has a right over the intellectual property associated with this algorithm or even the entire ecosystem? I don’t believe so! At best, they can claim only partial ownership of it and, since it takes a lot of people’s data to learn from, it’s hard to judge exactly what share of the profits or other intangible benefits should go to a platform’s users and how much of it belongs to its originator. 

 

Going back to the example of my smart ring, I bought it for my own personal use and paid the company a premium for a product that’s supposed to help monitor my health. But there comes a point where my data, along with that of tens of thousands of others, can be used for a purpose other than the one initially intended. That increases the company’s value in the market on the back of the data contributed by its users. 

This is an inherent flaw in the digital economy which I also talk about in my upcoming book on the future of work and one that not many people seem to think about until it may well be too late.

 

Think of companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and other tech giants that have produced an immense level of wealth for their founders and shareholders. Without the thousands of hours that we all spend on their platforms, their algorithms would never have reached the level of sophistication that they have. Every time we post something on social media, even our holiday pictures, every time we write an email, watch a tutorial or even enjoy Netflix, we are training their algorithms. 

The Digital Economy is a Winner-Take-All model, where the originator of an algorithm draws disproportionate profits from the intellectual property of the masses who contribute their data simply by being connected to the internet and living their lives.Click to Tweet

 

An Attempt at Self Regulation 

 

I say all this as an active investor in technology start-ups. I’m fully aware of the lack of a suitable model as to how tech companies and their investors should share their returns with their users. The models that we currently have are based on a pre-digital economy and need to be radically reformed. This is something that I’m actively thinking about and researching. 

 

In the digital economy, and especially one that’s built upon automation and machine learning, the tech companies’ commitment to their users does not end by giving them free emails and cheap entertainment, or even a product such as a smartphone. I’m officially an Apple fan and I have six Macs, two iPads, iPhones and an Apple Watch. I speak to Siri 20 times a day as it helps me in my daily life, like a member of the family. I am constantly aware that, with every move I make and every time I talk to Siri, I’m training it. As millions of us do this every day, these algorithms are speeding up their learning process. 

 

Sometimes I wonder what if they learn everything that there is to know about human behaviour and we no longer have anything else to teach them? At that point, would they even have a use for humans? As our technologies become more sophisticated, our very identity as humans is coming under question.

 

A Social Subclass?

 

Ray Kurzweil predicts that, once technology supersedes us on every level, we will see a subclass of humans in society who will be given their basic life needs to exist. Of course, Kurzweil is not the only person who has predicted this. Professors Yuval Noah Harari, Nick Bostrom, Erik Brynjolfsson and many others have warned against some version of this. The reason I’ve repeatedly quoted Kurzweil is that he is not just another academic who can be accused of theorising. He is a Director of Engineering at Google.  

 

I fear that this subclass in society might involve a much larger proportion of the population than we think, possibly over 90%. This means middle classes could be wiped out, potentially by the end of this decade. 

What no one seems to talk about is the fact that the very technologies that machine learning algorithms are being built upon are fuelled by the data produced by that same 90% of society. Without their data, tech giants wouldn’t be where they are. So, 90% of society needs protection and help to cope with these transitions. By protection, I don’t just mean a basic income, I mean opportunities to thrive, compete, build businesses of their own and feel fulfilled.

 

Aided by Artificial Intelligence, The Digital Economy can wipe out the middle classes, rendering 90% of the society as a “subclass”, with little to offer that machines can’t do better, and faster. Yet, the very technologies that machine learning algorithms are being built upon are fuelled by the data produced by that same 90%. Click to Tweet

Containing The Masses

 

Once we are all connected to the cloud using our wearable and implantable devices, we will no longer be able to tell whether any sense of happiness or fulfilment we might feel arises from our own independent agency. I have heard Kurzweil mention an example in several interviews where a young woman undergoing brain surgery while awake experienced humour and laughed when a certain region of the brain was stimulated. Once we all have an implant in our bodies, how can we be sure that our laughter will not be like that of this young woman?

 

The question of whether that’s necessarily a bad thing is a separate matter. You could argue that modern entertainment hypnotises society in a similar fashion. But we need to have a choice, and that’s what I’m talking about. While some people spend their weekend watching repeats of the Kardashians, others spend it in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Both have the right to choose their own experiences. We have come a long way from slavery and serfdom to our modern-day democracy. 

 

Humans are born to be free and in their freedom, they have the potential to create infinite and diverse forms. Artificial intelligence does not have to be our last invention!

 

Experiments show that stimulating a part of the brain can induce laughter. Once we are all connected to the cloud using our wearable and implantables, how can we know if our sense of happiness or fulfilment arises from our own independent agency?Click to Tweet

 

The World After COVID-19

 

One crucial issue that I have not yet mentioned in this article is the emergence over the last few years of what we might call a cold war between China and America. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to their posturing over who will become the world’s technological superpower. 

 

In his book, AI Superpowers, China, Silicon Valley and New World Order, Kai-Fu Lee explains that in China, the government and their version of Silicon Valley are essentially the same. The Chinese government is pouring billions of dollars into Artificial Intelligence and biotechnology. As a nondemocratic government, they have direct access to the data mined and refined by their technology firms. Bearing in mind China’s massive population, that is a lot of data and that alone gives them an advantage over the west. Remember, data is oil for machine learning.

 

Kai-Fu Lee points out that there is one major challenge that could hold the US and its European allies back in their technological rivalry with China. That challenge is a lack of alignment between western technology firms and their democratic governments. Well, it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 episode has now paved the way for such an alignment. (Lee 2018)

 

A recent Economist article warns against the damage that this alignment could cause to voters, consumers and investors. Soon, that ship will have sailed. Once our data has been shared, this process can’t be reversed. It’s like sharing a secret, you can’t take it back. (The Economist, 2020)

 

When you think about the recent shenanigans over who will be the first to bring 5G to the market, you get a glimpse of how serious this is. If you are wondering why 5G is a big deal, it’s because it will enable the Internet of Things, (IoT), which means a much faster and ever-increasing amount of data to enable machine learning. 

 

Imagine how much my ring and my smartwatch know about me and my movements, now imagine them sharing that data with every other machine connected to the cloud in real-time. Humans can’t even begin to fathom the idea of processing so much data whereas machines do it easily and technology firms and governments will have ready access to it. Is this a world we all want to live in? 

 

I hope this article has convinced you of the seriousness of the challenges that lie ahead of us. The topics that I have discussed here are no longer in the realm of science fiction. They are here. Now. And we have a small window of opportunity to form a robust transition architecture as we merge with our technologies. 

 

I close this article with an open letter to Ray Kurzweil at Google. 

 

An Open Letter to Ray Kurzweil

 

Dear Ray,

 

I have read your book, “How To Be A Danielle”, and I believe I’m someone that you would call a Danielle. The transformations that you have talked about over the past 40 years and your predictions for the future of humanity appear to be inevitable and make logical sense. But we don’t have to go into them blindly. I, for one, want to be conscious, present and to fully experience it as we enter this new phase of our evolution.

 

As a female immigrant living in exile, there is one thing I know for sure that you have probably never experienced. That is, once you transition to the other side there is no going back. 

 

When I look back at my life, I don’t regret for a second that I left my birth country and came to the west with no family or connections. I put myself through education and built a new life. However, it’s not been an easy journey and, at times, it took its toll on my mental and physical health. In retrospect, I wish I had been better equipped with the tools, knowledge, and most importantly, the wisdom to help me to achieve a smoother transition. 

 

I worry that humanity may be setting foot into new territory with no map and no robust theory of transition. I appreciate that you are an optimist but we need to spend as much time, energy and resources as possible on ensuring that our transition will benefit everyone in society. These are the very people whose data is making it possible for our algorithms to learn and self-improve. These people need protecting, not least for the legacy that they are making possible. Having a society with a large population of “subclass” humans is not acceptable. 

 

I have read all your books and watched all your interviews. I know your technical visions for the future. What’s missing is a solid construct for how we will be able to address the ethical, philosophical and psychological implications of these technological advancements.  

 

For this reason, I would like to request a live interview to discuss these issues with you and seek your input to ensure we put processes in place to protect the humans living on earth as we go through a transition from the pre-digital to the post-digital era. 

 

Somi Arian

Personal Story
[ April 1, 2020 by Somi Arian 0 Comments ]

How I learnt to constantly reinvent myself through Transition Architecture

People say, “hardship makes you resilient”!ship could also break you, I went to the verge of being completely broken and hit rock bottom several times in life. A skill that helped massively in getting through these difficult times was having the ability to successfully transition from them back to some level of stability. The trick is not to get too comfortable when you finally do gain that stability and to always be prepared for the next challenge and transition. Living in the 21st Century means that the speed of life is increasing, at the same time the web of our lives, our businesses, and even our health have become more interconnected than ever. In this article, I’m going to share a very personal story and my concept of Transition Architecture which I now apply to my business as we help other companies and individuals deal with digital transformation. I hope you find it helpful, especially as we all deal with the challenges brought upon us at this particularly difficult time in history.

 

Transition Architecture 

 

Many of you may know that I spent most of the last year writing a book about the Future of Work which is due to be released in 2020. With the advent of Covid-19, I feel everything I said in that book has become applicable much faster. I was predicting a five to ten year transition period, but this virus has greatly accelerated everything, and many of us haven’t been ready for it.

 

One of the ideas that I’ve introduced in the book is the concept of “Transition Architecture”. Although the book is not yet released, I decided to share the basic premise of this concept here as I think it will help many people and businesses in light of the recent challenges.

 

A New Role For The Future

 

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In the book, I wrote about a new role in society and in the Business and Career Landscape, that I predicted would arise in the coming years – I called it Transition Architecture. Due to the increased pace of Digital Transformation and with the impact of Artificial Intelligence, I argued that the next few decades would see a constant flow of change, not just in companies but also in governments, families and our personal lives. We all need to adapt constantly and rapidly. However, change is painful, and most of us aren’t ready for it.

 

Attributes Of Transition Architects

 

Transition Architects are people with an immense level of flexibility and speed that will twist and bend under any circumstances. These are people who get back up before they fall, don’t get discouraged by failure, accept the reality as it is, and pivot where needed. Transition Architects are tech-savvy and yet emotionally intelligent. They are present, they don’t complain and have a solution-focused attitude.

 

How I Learnt To Be The Architect of My Own Transition

 

I learnt the attributes of a Transition Architect the hard way, growing up in Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war. I come from one of the most impoverished areas of the South of Tehran; if you saw the environment I grew up in, you would never believe where I’ve gotten to, now. Here is a picture to give you an idea of the level of poverty I grew up in. For me growing up in the middle of war and deprivation, change came fast all the time. From one day to another, we didn’t know whether we would be alive, let alone have our next meal.

 

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I learnt about living in a constant state of transition when I was six years old, and my parents sent me to live with some distant relatives in the North of Iran because the capital was under fire. I remember it as being the most traumatising experience as I felt my parents had abandoned me. After the war, the country’s instability continued and worsened. I taught myself English and started working as a tour guide, by the time I was 17. Mind you, by this time, I was also forced to marry my cousin, and I was fighting my family to let me get divorced. Just as I got divorced and started to enjoy a flow of decent income from working with European tourists, 9-11 happened, and tourists stopped visiting Iran. I was anxious not knowing how to pay for my university or my life for that matter. But I got through it, and a year later I got a job in the Netherlands’ Embassy in Tehran, thanks to the Dutch Ambassador at the time who believed in me, and that changed my life. I then went on to work for the United Nations and eventually came to the UK in 2005 to study. I arrived in the UK with one suitcase and with absolutely no family, friends, or connections. I cried many nights, not knowing how to pay for my education and life. My biggest disappointment came when I was doing a PhD at St Andrew’s University but could no longer afford to pay my tuition fees. So, I had to hand in my thesis and graduate with an MPhil instead. I really struggled with accepting this reality and felt my whole world had come down crashing.

 

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I moved to London in 2010, once again with nothing but a suitcase and two masters degrees in Political Theory and Philosophy of Science which at the time felt useless. I worked in a restaurant until I got a job in TV and ended up becoming a filmmaker, which has nothing to do with my education. I had to learn an entirely new skill in a short period and went on to become a multi-award winning senior producer/director, launched a successful business, got invited to give talks around the world, got offered a book deal. It felt like I had it all figured until recently when I returned from a successful trip to Japan where I gave a talk to an audience of 1000 senior industry leaders in the travel industry.

 

A Woman with Many Faces

 

I feel like my personal life and career has been one giant transition after another, and so I’ve become immune to it. Even if life wanted to give me a break at times, I brought new challenges upon myself.

 

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For example, in the midst of struggling to pay for my education when I was a student, I even formed a Death Metal band and took it so seriously we went on to play in front of thousands of people and were featured in all the major hard rock and metal publications. The band itself created so many challenges to my life and caused me a delay in becoming a British citizen by one year. But I loved the contrasts of educating at the highest levels of political theory and philosophy of science and then getting up on stage screaming because it was unexpected and challenged people to view of what an educated woman should be like. Even today I give talks about the future of work, and the impact of technology on the business landscape, sometimes in a leather outfit and sometimes in girlie pink shoes, and if I feel like it, I’ll turn up in a suit. This level of flexibility and being comfortable in my skin, regardless of what the world’s expectation of me, might be, keeps me sharp in responding to whatever challenges life might throw at me because I’ve done it all and I’ve seen it all.

 

Where Am I Now?

 

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If you think I’m speaking from a warm place today with no problems let me tell you that this is not the case. Just in the space of the last six months, I went through a painful break up of a five-year relationship, I currently live in an Airbnb – I’ve been trying to purchase a flat for the past months, and it’s been one problem after another trying to make that happen. And now thanks to Covid-19 I’ve just lost tens of thousands of pounds on contracted work.

 

I’ve had to learn to become a Transition Architect. As I’ve been helping our clients with their digital transformation and thought leadership building, I’ve always attempted to provide them with a huge amount of emotional support. I play the role of a mentor, a psychologist, and a business coach in addition to helping people and companies with their content, digital transformation in their marketing and HR, or building their thought leadership. I’ve also communicated this attitude with my team, and we’ve made it our company’s value. That’s what it means to be a transition architect. Now, let me tell you how I came up with the inspiration to use that term.

 

Tents, Houses, and Non-Attachment

 

Historian Yuval Noah Harari gave an analogy in an interview, saying, ‘If traditionally people built identities like stone houses with very deep foundations, now it makes more sense to build identities like tents that you can fold and move elsewhere. Because we don’t know where you will have to move, but you will have to move.’

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Harari’s analogy truly spoke to me – as an immigrant who’s lived through war and hardship, it inspired me to develop my concept of transition architecture. For most of my life, I felt rootless with no sense of belonging, and this made me sad – until I learnt that being rootless didn’t have to be a negative thing. Instead of feeling sad, I decided to embrace it and give it a positive outlook, I saw myself as a master of transition, and I could see that a world of fast-paced technological transformation needed people like me.

 

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If we think about our identities in terms of building tents, rather than houses, that same analogy applies to individuals and companies in their Digital and AI transformation. It’s another way of saying that we all need to be much more agile and flexible. Covid-19 has now brought this to force faster than many of us expected.

 

 

Speed and Flexibility 

 

A house and a tent have a few essential things in common. They both have a base, columns, a living space and a roof, but they differ immense

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[ April 8, 2020 by Somi Arian 0 Comments ]

The Role of Educational Systems in Preparing Our Young For Disruptive Technologies

As a tech-philosopher, I’m often asked whether I think the educational institutions are doing enough to help the younger generations develop the right skills for living and working in the age of disruptive technologies. My answer to that is that we first need to define what we mean by skills, but also, what do we mean by living and working? You may think that the answer is obvious but please allow me to present you with a somewhat different way of framing the topic of this article.

 

First things first, let’s look at the origins of terms such as skill, work, technology and education.

 

What do we mean by skills?

 

As humans, we have three forms of capacities: physical, cognitive and emotional. When we are born these capacities are not fully developed, they are mere “potentials”. Skills are the level of proficiency that we develop in realising our potential physical, cognitive, and emotional capacities.

 

Other animals also have these capacities to some degree, but their “skills” are not developed as much as ours. Something happened during the course of evolution of life on earth that dramatically increased humans abilities to enhance their skills, which put us at the top of the food chain. I’m talking about the advent of technology.

 

Technology is the name we give to a set of tools that allow us to outsource and enhance our skills. The two keywords here are “outsource” and “enhance”. Hold on to those as we will come back to them. The point is that as advanced life forms we rely on our skills and technologies to maximise our mastery over the environment and have a better quality of life for longer. This brings me to the question of life itself.

 

What is life?

 

Fortunately, there is someone who has already done an amazing job of describing life, so I won’t have to try and tackle it all by myself. That person was physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, who described life in a book he wrote by that very title.

 

I will do my best to paraphrase and summarize Schrödinger’s take on life, in my own very simplified words – that is at the moment of The Big Bang, our universe was in a state of total order and homogeneity. As the universe expanded it became more disordered and differentiated, and new forms were developed in the shape of stars, planets, galaxies and other entities. Since then the universe has been going toward a state of maximum entropy and disorder – another name for a state of maximum entropy is death!

 

In that sense, the universe is like a human baby who is in a state of perfect order when they’re born. As the baby grows up they become more and more disordered, they develop new behaviours, go through physical changes, and eventually, they die and dissolve, which is the ultimate state of disorder.

 

Going back to the Big Bang, in the process of increasing its disorder some particles in our baby universe randomly got together and formed new entities with a new kind of internal consistency and order. As far as we know, life on our planet, and intelligent life in humans, are the most advanced forms of order which has to date been achieved in the observable universe. A unique property of life in general and intelligent life, in particular, is that it draws energy and resources from its environment in order to increase its internal order and preserve itself. Mind you, life achieves this state of order, by increasing disorder in its environment. The current climate change crisis is an example of that – but that’s the topic of a whole other discussion.

 

For now, let’s focus on the skills. Developing more advanced “skills” lead to better preservation of life and order for our species. The process of applying our skills to achieve desired outcomes is typically what we call “work”, in human society. But it turns out that this is something we don’t have to do all by ourselves!

 

How do we outsource and enhance our capacities?

 

Work requires energy, which is highly valuable and limited in most living beings. Early humans realised that they could “employ” other people, animals, or tools to do some of their work for them so that they could preserve their energy and achieve better and more results.

 

For example, we “employed” fire to cook food, and as a result we were able to absorb more nutrients which made our brains bigger. In other words, we outsourced part of our digestion to fire.

 

The earliest forms of technology enabled us to outsource and enhance our physical capacities. The 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions were the pinnacles of mechanisation and enhancement of our physical abilities. The 3rd Industrial Revolution, also known as the digital revolution of the 1980s, was all about enhancing and outsourcing our cognitive skills. You no longer need to spend hours at arithmetic and memorise facts when you can use calculators and you look up any fact with a simple Google search.

 

What’s left for us to do?

 

With machines surpassing humans at physical and cognitive tasks, there is only one capacity left for us to fall back on. Our emotional skills are what gives us an edge in the age of technological disruptions – at least for the time being. Artificial Intelligence is already able to mimic human emotions on many levels, but for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that they will be able to experience human emotions and subjectivity. That’s where (Human) Skills come in.

 

What are (Human) Skills?

 

Human skills are Emotional Intelligence, Critical Thinking, Contextual Creativity, and Mindfulness. At the moment these are the only kinds of skills left for us, which have not been outsourced to machines, although attempts at doing so are already underway. We really need to hurry to learn these skills and become proficient in them.

 

Where do educational systems come into play?

 

The truth is that throughout millennia the educational systems have not prepared us for these skills. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and why that might be the case. I have come to the conclusion that expecting educational systems to solve the problem of developing human skills in our young may be a futile exercise. The educational systems were never invented to teach us human skills to begin with. They were founded on Aristotelian logic and were always concerned with cognitive skills.

 

My personal opinion as a tech-philosopher and educator is that we as individuals have to take matters into our own hands. There is no point in wasting our time trying to change institutions that go back hundreds and thousands of years. If they catch up, that’s great. But given the speed of technological advancements, we simply don’t have the luxury of time to sit around and wait for them. I taught myself (human) skills, I didn’t learn them from my 21 years in education. The capacity to learn these skills is inherent in all of us – we just have to want to learn them. Once we do, we will be able to create new ways of thinking about work, life, fulfilment, and what it means to be human living alongside intelligent machines.

Somi Arian is a film director, tech philosopher, Founder of Smart Cookie Media and Co-Founder of Career Drive. Watch her award-winning documentary “The Millennial Disruption”.

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[ March 25, 2020 by Somi Arian 0 Comments ]

Mindfulness In The Age of Artificial Intelligence

Let me start this article by sharing a shocking revelation that I recently discovered about Larry Page, the co-founder of Google. I was researching for my upcoming book on the future of work, when I came across a passage in, “Life 3.0”, by professor Max Tegmark of MIT. He describes a heated after-dinner debate that he witnessed between Elon Musk and Larry Page where, in defence of his “digital utopian” views, Page accused Musk of being “specieist”, since he was “treating certain lifeforms as inferior just because they were silicone-based, rather than carbon-based.” (Tegmark, 2018)

 

On the surface this may sound like a science fiction debate that has no bearing on our “real lives”, but it’s far from it. These sentiments were expressed by one of the most influential people in technology, if not the most influential person, on our planet. The truth is that within a few short decades the digital revolution has grown into an incredibly powerful force with a life of its own.   This means that our knowledge is growing at an unprecedented speed and information is more accessible to us than ever before. 

 

Now, we’ve all heard that “knowledge is power”. We also know that “with great power comes great responsibility”. But what if you weren’t fully aware of the amount of knowledge (and power) that you had? If you think you don’t have a huge amount of knowledge and power to impact the world around you, think again. What kind of device are you reading this article on, right now? Your phone, tablet, or personal computer? In 2020, you can access more knowledge at the touch of a screen on your smartphone than what was accessible to the president of the United State in the 1990. 

 

Technology is giving us access to knowledge and power, but it can’t give us the wisdom to use this power sensibly. That part requires conscious choice and awareness, you can also call it mindfulness. Most of us go through the motions in our day to day lives. We work to pay the bills, go on holidays, post Instagram pictures, and raise kids – a future generation that has to live with the consequences of our unconscious decisions, today. We are often oblivious to how technology is changing our lives, living mindlessly and not fully engaging with what’s unfolding around us. The business landscape is just one example of how technology is changing the very DNA of the society, not always for the better. 

 

Artificial Intelligence, and in particular, Machine Learning, which is one of its sub-fields, is here to turn our worlds upside down. According to a McKinsey report “about 60 per cent of all occupations have at least 30 per cent of activities that are technically automatable, based on currently demonstrated technologies.” (McKinsey & Company, 2016) This creates a huge challenge for companies and individuals, as it means that we all have to redefine the way we think about work. But the change is happening quicker than we have the ability to manage it well.

 

Company leaders may be rubbing their palms in excitement, at first. More automation means less human workers, less sick pay, less maternity and paternity leave, less need for emotional engagement, and higher productivity. However, growth is not always for the better. When growth is not managed and paced well it can lead to catastrophic consequences. The environmental crisis of our time, and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, is a testament to this. The digital revolution has created a winner-take-all economy, giving a disproportionate advantage to a small number of tech giants around the globe who sadly display little wisdom, despite their great knowledge and power. Is this the world that we all want for ourselves and our future generations? 

 

So, what’s the solution? In my upcoming book on the future of work, I describe four human skills that can help us survive and thrive in the age of artificial intelligence. These four skills are Emotional Intelligence, Critical Thinking, Contextual Creativity, and Mindfulness. Now, mindfulness is the bedrock of the other three skills. All of these skills require the ability to understand our own subjective experiences, and that of others, and a sense of togetherness, empathy, and compassion. These all are concepts that would have made no sense in the business landscape as we knew, since the first industrial revolution. Ironically, today’s digital revolution has the potential to force us to change our way of life to live more mindfully, be more engaged and ultimately more fulfilled. Alternatively, we can choose to let go and allow technology to grow on autopilot, losing control of what our society, and our species, will turn into. The choice is ours.