The answer, of course, is both. And so it has been with the digital revolution. A connected world has brought us previously unimaginable benefits. But across the last 12 months we’ve been reminded that this revolution has not played out as predicted by the first-generation Silicon Valley techno-optimists, who promised us a democratised, empowered, bright and shiny future liberated from old power structures and mistaken thinking.
Today, we’re left wondering how we manage the impact of Facebook on our democracies. We gaze in wonder and horror at China’s nascent and facial recognition-fuelled social credit rating system. And all this while checking our phones 200 times a day. Are we using the phones, or are they using us?
So the question now is surely: what next?
A new wave of technologies is coming. I mean the technologies we commonly cluster together under the banner of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: AI, VR, AR, robotics, automation and new genetic tech. How will these technologies reshape our lives and our societies in the 21st-century? What consequences — and unintended consequences — will they have for all of us?
I think there’s a simple, powerful truth that can help us answer that question. One that’s often overlooked in the ‘Automation set to kill jobs!’ or ‘AI will take over the world!’ headlines.
Here is that truth. Yes, we’re living a time of accelerated change. But amid all that change, we’re still the same old humans with the same old human needs. Human beings are motivated by a set of core needs; think value, security, convenience, fun and more. At their most fundamental those needs are stable; as the centuries pass, they don’t change.
Yes we live in a new world right now. And in another 20 years it will be a new world all over again. But in that new world we’ll still be the same humans with the same evolved human nature. That simple truth gives us a handle on the new technologies emerging around us now; one that allows us a glimpse of where those technologies will lead us.
Why? Because new trends in human behaviour, mindset and expectation emerge when change — often new technologies — unlocks new ways to serve basic human needs. So if we want to understand the powerful impacts that AI, VR, automation and other 4IR technologies are going to have, we need to start viewing those technologies through the lens of human nature.
Let’s take an example. Ask many people to name one trend set to transform the 21st-century and they’ll say: artificial intelligence. But taken alone, the statement: ‘there will be AI in the coming decades’ tells us little.
If we want to understand what the emergence of AI means, how it will transform lives and societies, then we need to see this technology through the lens of basic humans.
Take one of the most powerful basic human needs of all: social connection. Humans are hard-wired to be social animals; it’s a part of our nature that’s always been with us and always will be. Now, AI is unlocking powerful new ways of serving that core need. Millions around the world are already conversing with AI-fuelled virtual entities such as Siri and Alexa, and increasingly those conversations go beyond, ‘Alexa, order me some washing powder.’ Instead, those conversations are beginning to address the need for connection — friendship, companionship — itself. Apple know that is happening; that’s why they’re hiring psychologists into the Siri team so she can have ‘more serious conversations’ with users.
Extend that direction of travel forwards, and we can start to see one of the major implications of AI in the years to come. Millions will turn to AI-fuelled virtual entities to serve their basic need for social connection. Expect AIs that act as counsellors, friends, and, yes, even life partners. It will be a profound transformation of human social connection that will bring huge change to individual lives and to all of us collectively.
Sound too weird to be true? Don’t forget that just 20 years ago (and many reading will be too young to remember this) the idea of ‘online dating’ was one steeped in mystery and deep embarrassment. Today we have 12 million Tinder matches per day, and none of those people think they ‘met online’. When technologies unlock new ways to serve core human needs, mindsets and behaviours change — often with amazing speed. It happened with the first wave of digital tech and social connection; it will happen again with AI.
So, to catch powerful glimpses of how life will feel — and how societies will transform — in the 21st-century, we need to view the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution through the lens of powerful human needs such as social connection, status, purpose and belief.
And one final human need we need to pay attention to: power.
Humans are just social animals by nature. They are hierarchical animals too. The human instinct towards power has shaped our history. As the online revolution dawned, we were persuaded to ignore that truth by Silicon Valley utopians who fed us a seductive ideology: ‘connecting the world will usher in a new age of individual empowerment, and that will solve many of humanity’s oldest and hardest problems’. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead, we saw the rise of a handful of mega-platforms that now wield vast, and largely unaccountable, power over us. We took our eye off a key question: where is the power flowing to? And now we’re paying the price.
We must not make the same mistake when it comes to the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Who will be the Amazon of superhuman intelligence, delivered on-demand? Who will be the Apple of AI-fuelled companion robots? We need watch the next wave of tech superpowers as they emerge.
The new technologies now emerging have the potential to promote human flourishing in incredible ways. But that won’t happen on its own. We need to come together do the work that is necessary if we are to ensure we realise the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And that work starts with understanding our true natures.
Guest blog by David Mattin — Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching.
David advises many of the world’s leading brands on the future of consumerism and technological change. He speaks regularly at leading business and technology conferences, and his writing has appeared in a wide range of UK and international media, including The Times, Quartz, Fast Company, and Google Think Quarterly. David was named a LinkedIn Top Voice of 2017 for his writing on technology and business.