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Please wait while your future trickles down: innovation, asymmetry and evolution

If you believe the technologists, the future is around the corner and it’s going to be perfect. But is more technology really the answer to every problem?

The future’s so bright, i gotta wear shades

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Do you know what CeBIT is? Chances are you do, because here you are reading this. This means you have access to internet and some device on which you’re reading it on, your English is at least passable, you have the time and motivation to be reading such articles, and so on.

Still, in all likelihood you did not catch it all. I did get a good part of it, and i’m here to tell you a story on what it was about and why it’s important.

CeBIT is one of the world’s most massive and impressive technology expos. It is estimated that nearly 1 million people flock to its 450,000 m² exhibition area that showcases the latest and greatest – from self-flying drones to microchips you can implant under your skin and domestic robots.

CeBIT also features an impressive panel of speakers and panelists, ranging from researchers and innovators to business and political leaders. All of this really offers a glimpse in the shape of things to come, and some of the statements made this year on CeBIT’s stage concerned the end of privacy, human labour and physical limitations including ageing.

You may think those are far-fetched sensationalist statements made to impress. Impress they certainly do, but for better or worse, they are more than just statements: they are facts, or reasonable projections based on facts. While each of those is worth analyzing in its own right, let’s just gloss over them here:

Privacy: by analyzing data such as your Facebook likes or pictures, machine learning algorithms can predict a person’s age, gender, race or sexual orientation, with accuracy ranging from 70% to over 90%. No, you don’t need a ton of data and a supercomputer to do that – 5 likes and the proverbial laptop will do. Yes, you can easily get such data – from Facebook or other sources.

Human labour: everything, from ordering dinner to building cars and from giving investment advice to composing music and writing software, is either already automated or in the process of being automated. While some say it’s off their radar, truth is it’s already happening faster than you think and no part of human activity will be unaffected.

Physical limitations: the paraplegic can walk, the blind can see, mind reading is possible. Digital transformation extreme, this time not in organizations, but in organisms, coming to a human body near you soon. And that ageing and death thing? Well, guess what – in the future, it may not be what it used to.

On its own, each of these would be game changing and mind blowing scenarios. But they are not on their own, and they are all happening right here, right now.

For most people, this is a world beyond their comprehension or even their imagination. For most speakers and panelists, this is the brave new world they live in, and it’s only a matter of time before it trickles down to the rest of us.

Apparently even super-bright and super-rich people can get caught up in their echo chambers, because this does not seem like the world as the rest of us know it.

Even if you are here reading this, chances are you did not know about all of those. And you’re asking yourself questions. How is this possible, what does it mean, and is the future so bright you gotta wear shades? Good questions. Let’s try and answer them.

Innovation: technology, collaboration, disruption

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IBM’s Paulo Carvao gave a keynote in which innovation was broken down to 3 elements: technology innovation, collaborative innovation and business model innovation.

On the technology level, progress is astounding and accelerating at an exponential pace. What this means is that it’s no longer a linear, steady progression with occasional breakthroughs, but new technologies keep building on preceding ones and enabling succeeding ones at a pace that keeps growing as we go.

Computation and storage, algorithms and data, are the key driving factors there. Moore’s law, the ability to double computational capacity every 2 years, does not seem to be stopping, and even as we are reaching the physical limitations of current technology, new technology will supersede it. The amount of data generated and stored is also on a similar trajectory, as we continue to generate and store more data about more things than ever before.

This means that we now have enough data for algorithms to study and learn how to perform complex tasks like playing Go or flying fighter planes far better than humans can. Which means there’s no turning back – whatever it is we humans do, computers will eventually do better.

You may think it’s oh so new and groundbreaking, but it’s not really. It’s a sort of natural progression which makes sense if you have been keeping up, and people like Ray Kurzweil have been able to forecast it pretty accurately. What is relatively new is the collaboration and business aspect.

These days even corporations like IBM, that have tried to patent anything from email auto-replies to web pages and to hold on to their patents to effectively stop others from innovating, vow to collaboration for the common good. Even organizations that have traditionally been the icon of incumbency like UBS are now trying to innovate and offer new services and new ways of doing business to their clients.

In a way, technology has enabled all that. The open source movement is social in its foundation, but without technology it would not have been possible. The ability for loose groups of people around the world to collaborate on projects that produce results freely available to anyone has disrupted the software business, which was used to operate as an image of the way traditional businesses operate.

Soon the likes of IBM realized that open source can produce not only cheaper, but better software, because unlike proprietary software it grows from a community, which in turn it helps grow. This means anyone can contribute, and the motivation to do so is bigger as contributions bring immediate and visible results and credit. So if you can’t beat them, join them. Now the whole world is going open source.

Technology has also enabled small groups of individuals to reach broad audiences rapidly. A team that knows their business and has some good ideas and the right technical expertise on board can implement and deploy a digitally powered solution faster and more effectively than ever before. The Airbnbs and Ubers of this world are iconic examples of this, but the same is happening every day under the mainstream radar. This is why the McKinseys of the world forecast potential doom and gloom for incumbents

Incumbents are thus forced to either pay large sums of money to acquire solutions created by innovators, or dole out funds in idea competitions and early stage startups in the hope of spotting promising solutions, helping them grow under their umbrella and take a handsome cut off their earnings. Sometimes even organizations like banks, who have traditionally been on the conservative side of the fence, are trying to innovate themselves.

The growth versus fixed mentality showdown: infinite growth, fixed power structure

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In other words, it seems like the growth mentality is taking over from the fixed mentality. But is that really the case, and if so, is that a good thing?

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.

A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. For anyone even vaguely familiar with the startup and innovation world, this should ring a bell. Celebrating creativity and embracing failure is a radical paradigm shift from the corporate world.

As more and more products and services are becoming commoditized, differentiation through innovation is desperately sought after. The combination of increasingly affordable, available and powerful technology and a global economy means that the competition is more intense than ever and the next winning solution may spring out of anywhere, only to be soon superseded by the next one.

Some see this as democratization of business and entrepreneurship, and you could argue that in some ways it may be. But just scratching beyond the surface raises a number of questions. Perhaps the most fundamental question of all is what good is all that, and for whom? If innovation and democratization are the answer to everything, how come they’re so selectively applied?

While it may be true that the world as a whole is better off today than it ever was, it is also true that it is more unequal than it ever was – the 1% argument. The fact that organizations like OECD and WEF are targeting inequality as a key issue speaks volumes.

One of the main drivers in the world of startups and innovation is the “anyone can make it, go for it” attitude. We have to ask ourselves though, is that really all that different from the good old American dream? And how well has that been working out really?

While it seems like collaboration, innovation and rooting out incumbents are not only considered possible, but actually encouraged in the business world, when the question moves to political change, equal opportunities and real democratic control are dismissed as unrealistic.

The argument there is that it’s fine to have a ruling class that is in control of money and power, because they are the ones that are smarter and have worked harder to get there, so they should be leading and by letting them rule and giving them (tax) breaks, their wealth and wisdom will trickle down and work out to the best interest of society at large.

Be innovative, follow your dream, work hard and you will succeed, goes the promise. Then if the world is innovating at a pace that far exceeds anything we’ve known up to now, and this innovation is coming bottom-up rather than top-down, how come we don’t see the fruits of that innovation spreading to what would be a generation of millionaires?

Infinite growth, fixed power structure seems to be the mojo of our times.

The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed (yet?)

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There’s another part in this technology + innovation = progress equation however that is rarely talked about, and that is the hierarchical structure of organizations and the surplus value the ones on top of the pyramid get to extract. Which is pretty much the same in the startup world as it is in the corporate world.

While some startup employees may enjoy informal environments and perks or stock options, the work ethics and distribution of rewards are not that different at the end of the day for most. There are advantages and disadvantages in being an employee and in having your own business, but being an employee in a startup often feels like the worst of both worlds.

More often than not, startup employees are encouraged to think and act as if working there gives their lives meaning and purpose, so by extension they have a stake in the company they work for, they own it and make the decisions, only to realize that this is far from the truth.

That metaphor can easily be extended to any citizenship in the world: it’s supposed to be your country, and you’re the one that’s supposed to work to make it great (again), except you never really have a say in decisions or a cut in the profits.

But, we are told, technology is the great equalizer. Maybe so, but only as long as it’s equally available to everyone. Yes, anyone can now use the cloud and build and deploy their application there. But the “if you build it, they will come” approach does not work in the real world. You need marketing campaigns, dedicated teams, and funding.

Remember the industrial revolution? Again, the promise was that increasing productivity would bring a lush life for everyone, eradicate poverty, decrease working hours and so on. Is that really happening? Even medieval farmers had more time off than the average American worker today.

The fact that there are machines in factories today does not mean the average worker lives a lush life. Similarly, the fact that there will be robots to do all the jobs soon should not obfuscate the question of who owns the robots.

Plus, there’s another aspect to digital technology that is just beginning to be understood more widely: it’s all about the data. In the age of data-driven Artificial Intelligence, data is what drives applications. Our algorithms have not changed that much in the last decades, what has changed is that we now have more compute power to run them on and more data to train them.

Since we’re in the beginning of the era of big data and AI, not everyone understands this yet. The Googles and Facebooks of the world are doing their best to create data silos and lock their users in, in exchange for freemium services. Unless a viable alternative is taken by a critical mass of people, or GAFAs are regulated, there’s a danger that lies there: creating the next 1% of incumbents, the ones in control of data.

Much like money, data begets more data in a virtuous -or vicious, depending on your point of view- circle of sorts. The assumption or promise for AI, and technology in general, is that it will eventually trickle down. Maybe it will, but that will require a huge shift in the way we think about the world and ourselves.

Yes, we are on the verge of technological advances that could change the world as we know it for the better. But there is also growing tension between old, centralized and top-down paradigms and new, distributed and bottom-up ones. Unless we can successfully transition to new paradigms that work for the benefit of the many, the concentration of unprecedented power in the hands of the few is a gloomy prospect.

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