NZ Herald business editor at large

Future Shock: The amazing tech coming our way

I'm silently spelling my name backwards to stimulate my frontal lobe.

Trying to think hard is harder than you'd think.

But when I get it right the electrical activity in my brain rises and the little remote control robot in front of me starts moving forward. It's like magic.

It's not though. It's the very real science of Auckland company Thought-Wired.

It's mind-controlled head-set technology that could change the world for the physically disabled and for the rest of us. This is a starting point for a new technology that is expected to leap ahead exponentially in the next few years.

The fundamental technology is in place, we can move things with our mind.
Exponential technology has been the "buzz" phrase at the SingularityU Summit in Christchurch this week.

The summit, held in New Zealand for the first time and attended by nearly 1500 people, is one of several held around the world each year by the Silicon Valley think-tank Singularity University.

So what does exponential technology mean?

"It takes 20 years for a new technology to become an overnight success," says Kathryn Myronuk, a San Francisco based tech consultant futurist and SingularityU keynote speaker.

In other words the pace at which new technology moves out of the realms of experimental science can be very slow. But the pace accelerates.

It's being driven by Moore's Law - the idea coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in the 1960s - that computing power doubles every two years.

There is debate about whether we are starting to reach the limits of that law.

Regardless it has held true for far too long for us to avoid the impact of a suite of new technologies - from self-driving vehicles, drones virtual reality and 3D printing to cloud based finance business models like Uber - changing the way we live dramatically in the next decade.

It may take 20 years for the technology to become functional for everyday use but once it gets to that point it takes just a year or two for it to completely change the world and "disrupt" whatever industries it can be applied to.

Humans are not good at seeing the change that is coming, says Myronuk.

"People only worry when they see the hardware in front of them." Take a technology like voice recognition.

It has been promising big things but continually disappointing users since the first versions were launched in the 1990s, she says.

But now something like Skype translate has reached a point where it as able to functionally (if not perfectly) recognise speech and translate a multi-language conversation in real time.

Or how about a computer's capacity for visual recognition? We were impressed when sensors were able to recognise basic shapes like a cat and a dog - but so can a two-year-old.

Then they started to recognise letters and numbers, which is useful but still not much better than a five-year-old.

But now, says Myronuk, computers can look at a medical scan and recognise pre-cancerous tissues.

"Suddenly have the abilities of a 40-year-old oncologist and that's the thing that surprises us." The human eye, says her Singularity U colleague and health industry special, Michael Gillam, sees at a detail of about 600 million pixels.

In terms of creating the visual equivalent of a hearing aid we currently have computer based recognition at about 1600 pixels. It has been slow progress but if the current exponential path of development holds we should reach human eye quality by 2037.

What's more amazing is how far beyond that the technology could go in just another two years.

These are great stories and at a conference like SingularityU , packed with inspiring speakers, they provide a welcome antidote to lot of the politics and pessimism that have dominated news this year.

But there's no getting around the fact that the rise of smart technology in all its forms presents a huge challenge for the human race.

What will we do to earn a living? What should our children be studying? And even if we can manage the transition how can we do it without alienating large sections of the population, exacerbating economic inequality and creating worrying reactionary political movement sand conflict.

In 2013 Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that 47 per cent of jobs could be reproduced by machines.

But a more recent McKinsey study, focused on tasks rather than professions, found that some 85 per cent of human tasks could be reproduced by machines.

Society hasn't really begun to absorb the level of change that is coming, Myronuk says.
She compares it in scale to climate change and has dubbed it economic climate change.

On balance she feels we are less prepared for and have less time to deal with the effects of technology.

Real climate change is very serious and the debate about our response has reached a point where it goes all the way from classrooms and living rooms through to world leaders and global political forums.

However, the response to economic climate change is still only being discussed seriously by a handful of economists and academics.

"We're talking about 85 per cent of jobs being automated," Myronuk says. "And we're not talking about one kind of job - it's robots that sew clothes, it's robots that do agriculture it's oncology, discovery of legal documents it's across a wide number of areas.

" So how is New Zealand doing at preparing for the change to come.

Good but not great, says Amy Fletcher, an associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, who specialises in the social policy around this kind of future shock.

The World Economic Forum global information technology report ranked New Zealand as the 17th best prepared to harness digital technology.

Singapore was number one, followed by Finland and Sweden.

"New Zealand is sitting on a firm foundation," says Fletcher.

We do have policy advisers on these issues within government.

"But we do need more government frameworks for tackling the challenges," she says.

Sweden for example has a Minister for the Future and Fletcher says she would like to see a similar ministry in New Zealand.

We can't predict the future so we are going to have to experiment with social policy.

"We are going to need to be adaptive and our tolerance for risk and failure has to go up."

Ideas like a universal basic income, a guaranteed wage for everyone, are starting to gain traction with economists.

SingularityU director of strategy Amin Toufani believes it is inevitable.

He's confident that the ever decreasing cost of technology will create enough resource abundance to enable the shift.

But Myronuk is not convinced this is the answer - at least not in isolation.

There is good research to show that when people have money they actually work harder and produce more, she says.

"When people have money they use it to move forward and to get out of the poverty trap." But she shares the fears of traditional economists that many countries may simply not have the cash or resources to provide a realistic income.

"The reality is we've only done a handful of studies on this," she says. "Imagine if we were talking about climate change and saying don't worry about it, we've done 10 studies." We simply don't yet have the data we need to address the issue and that is the problem, she says.

SingularityU director of global grand challenges Nathanial Calhoun has a blunt answer for those wondering what they or their children should study to future-proof themselves.

"Your chances of guessing the thing you should be studying now, to have a job in four years are really super, super low. If you are trying to guess eight to 10 years out - forget it." It's sobering advice for parents like me who view these discussions through a prism of protective anxiety for our offspring.

But after three days immersed in the world of the SingularityU some clear themes emerge: We do need to take the disruptive threat to society more seriously.
We need to teach adaptability and resilience.

Toufani says we should be focused on AQ - adaptability quotient. Studies show that IQ is not a great predictor of success, and particularly after the first two years in the work place.

What people are going to need is the ability to "learn, unlearn and learn again", he says. "Unlearning should be a core competency".

As a society we need to ensure we have a framework in place for workers to change career paths and re-learn.

All economics is ultimately about coping with the uncertainty. Our political and social systems, when they work, should be creating the stability and freedom for humans to progress as individuals and as a species.

Right now those systems are at serious risk of being outmoded.

The technology we are on the verge of unleashing will create a step change in the way we live.

The potential to unlock more freedom for human creativity has never been greater but neither has the degree of uncertainty we face.

- NZ Herald

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